I REMEMBER my retirement like it was yesterday. As I recall, I am still working, though not as hard as I did when I was younger. My wife and I still live in the city, where we bicycle a fair amount and stay fit. We have a favorite coffee shop where we read the morning papers and say hello to the other regulars. We don’t play golf.
In reality, I’m not even close to retirement. This is just a scenario I must have spun out at some point in the past. There are other future scenarios, but the details aren’t all that important. Notably, all of my futures have a peaceful and contented feel to them. They don’t include any financial or health problems, nor do they include boredom—not for me or anyone else I know.
A new study from the January issue of Psychological Science may explain why we are all so optimistic about what’s to come. The authors report that people tend to remember imagined future scenarios that are happy better than they recall the unhappy ones.
Cognitive scientists are very interested in people’s “remembered futures.” The whole idea seems contradictory in a way, as we tend to think of memory in connection with the past—recollections of people and things gone by. The fact is that we all imagine the future, and from time to time we recall those imaginary scenarios. Recent research has shown that the same brain areas are active when we remember past events and when we think about the future. Indeed, some scientists believe that these “memories” are highly adaptive, allowing us to plan and better prepare ourselves for whatever lies in store. If we can remember the actions and reactions we thought about in the past, our future behavior will be more efficient.
Still, very little was known until recently about how these simulations work. Are all future memories equally beneficial? Which scenarios do we recall best? Are most people’s forecasts as rosy as mine? Or do we also spin out less optimistic simulations of the years to come, ones that we tend to forget over time?
These are very difficult questions to study in a laboratory—or at least they were until now. A team of psychological scientists, headed by Karl K. Szpunar of Harvard University, devised a novel method for generating authentic future simulations, which he then used to study their characteristics and staying power.
Szpunar and his colleagues began by collecting a lot of biographical detail from volunteers’ actual memories. This information included people they had known, places they had been and the ordinary things surrounding them. I might, for example, tell the researchers about having a beer with my cousin Karen at a bar in Baltimore; buying a television at Best Buy with my wife; and borrowing $10 from my college roommate Roger at the bookstore. Szpunar’s team asked for more than 100 of these specific event memories from each of the 48 volunteers in their study.
A week later the researchers took each person’s raw material—all those people, places and things from near and distant pasts—and jumbled it all together. They presented the students with random combinations and instructed them to generate imaginary future scenarios for each one. For me the random set might have been my roommate Roger, the Baltimore bar and the TV. Sometimes the volunteers were instructed to imagine a positive future, sometimes a negative one and others times neutral. So I might envisage Roger and me having a terrific time cheering on the Orioles at that Baltimore bar, or I could imagine the two of us falling into a bitter argument at the same bar, while the news played on the TV in the background.
Later, the researchers tested the volunteers’ memories of these future scenarios by giving them two of the three details—the bar and Roger, say—and asking them to fill in the missing detail (the TV, in this case) to re-create the simulated future scene. The scientists tested some of the volunteers 10 minutes after they had generated the imaginary future scenarios, and they tested others a day later. The idea was to see if the emotional content of the imagined futures—positive, negative or neutral—made them more or less memorable.
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."