The results were intriguing. The researchers found that after only a 10-minute delay, the volunteers could remember all types of scenarios equally well. One day later, however, the details of negative simulations were much more difficult to recall than the details of positive or neutral simulations.
To ensure that the original memories were not influencing the participants’ recall of the future scenarios, the experimenters had a different set of volunteers generate lists of familiar people, places and objects without calling up memories—for instance, using Facebook to find the names of 110 familiar people. Then they did the same imagery and memory tasks as the first group. The results of this second experiment were the same as those of the first.
These findings are consistent with what is known about negative memories for actual past events, which also tend to fade more rapidly than positive ones. Szpunar and his colleagues hypothesize that the emotion associated with a future simulation is the glue that binds together the details of the scenario in memory. As the negative emotion dissipates, so, too, does the integrity of the remembered future.
So the negative versions of the future fade away with time, and the positive versions endure—leaving, on balance, an overly rosy vision of what’s to come. But that may not be a bad thing. People who suffer from depression and other mood disorders tend to not only ruminate on negative events from the past but also spin out gloomy scenarios for the future. Psychologically healthy adults tend to be unduly optimistic about what lies ahead. It’s probably adaptive to occasionally imagine the worst so we can do our best to avoid the things we can avoid—but then let those invited troubles fade away.
This article was published in print as "Memories of Tomorrow."