CHINA - Media OutReach - 31 July 2018 - Vivid memories and emotions about things affect our perceptions of when they
took place, but can the chance of them happening again also influence how we
regard the past?
Those of us who watched the Hollywood hit movie, La
La Land, which focuses on a bitter-sweet love affair between a musician and an
aspiring actress, may have been reminded of experiences we had with a former
boyfriend or girlfriend.
When talking to colleagues and friends, they all
agreed that their past experiences with their former partners -- whether taking
a vacation in Bali, for example, or going out for dinner, having a fight, or
just a conversation -- feel particularly remote now. Why is this?
Research has shown that the vividness of a past
trip and the emotions associated with it can influence people's perceptions of
when it took place. But can our perceived future also influence our past
The findings of the published paper, "Looking
Forward and Looking Back: The Likelihood of an Event's Future Reoccurrence
Affects Perceptions of the Time It Occurred in the Past" by PhD Candidate Kao Si,
Visiting Professor Robert S. Wyer,
and Associate Professor Xianchi Dai,
all from the Department of Marketing at The Chinese University of Hong Kong
(CUHK) Business School, have provided some useful answers to these questions.
at a Past Trip and its Possible Reoccurrence
In the research, the researchers considered
another determinant -- the likelihood of the event occurring again.
Specifically, they suggested that people consider past events to be more
distant if the chance of their reoccurrence is low.
A past vacation in Bali, for example, seems
more remote to people if they will never go there again, rather than if they
are likely to return next year.
Their hypothesis is
based on two assumptions: First, that people believe a future
event to be more imminent if there is high -- rather than low -- likelihood of it
occurring. Second, people's perceptions of when a former event will reoccur
have a positive influence on their judgments about when it previously took
More than 1,300 people took part in six
studies. In one of the studies, the researchers asked participants to recall
the most recent New Year's Eve they spent in a location other than their
hometown or place of residence and write down where they went, the people they
were with and what they did.
The researchers also asked the participants to
rate how long ago it felt since the event occurred, using a scale from 1 (feels
like yesterday/feels very close) to 9 (feels very far away/feels very distant);
the likelihood of them returning there and meeting the same people, also on a
scale from 1 (not at all feasible) to 9 (very feasible); and things such as how
vivid and emotional their memories were.
As a result, they found evidence that participants regarded a
past event that was unlikely to reoccur as being more distant.
In another study, participants were questioned
about a past vacation and how distant it felt to them today; they were also
asked to estimate the number of years before they would take another trip to
the same place.
The result revealed that participants who were
made to think that the future holiday was unlikely ended up estimating a longer
period till when they would make a return trip. He also estimated the time
since their past vacation to be longer when they felt it was very unlikely that
the future holiday would reoccur.
In the final study, involving fixed events in
the future, took place about 12 months before the 2016 Rio Olympics. The
researchers manipulated participants' judgments about how long it was until the
start of the next Summer Games by first focusing their attention on either a
near or a distant sports event.
Half of the participants were asked to think
first about the coming NBA finals -- only three weeks away at the time -- which
led them to regard the approaching Olympics as relatively distant.
The other half was asked to think first about
the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia -- then three years away -- which led them to
view that the forthcoming Olympics as closer.
Participants were then asked to indicate how
long it seemed since the last Olympics had taken place.
Logic might suggest that the more imminent the
next Olympics are then the more time that has elapsed since the previous Games.
But people's answers contradicted this: The farther away participants felt the
next Olympics to be, the farther away they also felt the last Olympics to be.
What did the Research Discover?
Research has shown that people's memories and
appraisal of the past can be influenced by their current goals, motivations,
However, few studies have investigated whether
people's perceptions of the future can affect their judgments of the time an
event occurred in the past.
This research found that a past event is
perceived to have occurred more recently if it is likely -- rather than unlikely
-- to reoccur.
The results suggest an event's likelihood of
reoccurring influences the perception of the time it will occur in future and
that this perception, in turn, affects judgments about when the event took
place in the past.
It should be noted their research focused
almost exclusively on positive events, not things that could stir up negative
feelings, such as a trip to the dentist or a car accident.
Also special or extraordinary personal events,
such as a wedding, were not examined. Based on the current findings, the
researchers speculate that the observed effect may be reduced, for both
negative and special events, because people rarely anticipate or consider they
will reoccur in the future.
Other explanations may also explain the current
findings. One interesting idea is that people may want to distance themselves
from a past event that was desirable, but was nevertheless unlikely to occur again,
to reduce feelings of wistfulness. Such an alternative suggestion is not
incompatible with the findings of this research.
Implications of the Findings
The research could prove useful to marketers
and retailers in future advertising campaigns because of the crucial role that
memory and time perception play in shaping consumers' decisions.
One study showed that under some circumstances
a person's desire to do something -- perhaps take an exotic holiday -- becomes
stronger if they feel it is a long time since they last indulged.
Yet the research highlighted a previously
ignored subtlety of marketing. Often great efforts have been taken to emphasise
just how easy it is to do something, but the studies suggested that doing so
could also backfire: when people perceive they are highly likely to indulge in
something again they may feel more closely connected to these past events and
are not so drawn to try them again in future.
The research also indicated that some form of
vicious cycle may negatively affect the effectiveness of consumers who try to
self-regulate their behavior -- specifically those who choose to set their own
rules or constraints. Such consumers may want to manage their finances, for
example, by limiting the frequency and amount they spend on holidays, or
deliberately buy fewer cigarettes each time they run out as part of efforts to
Such self-imposed limits could be effective,
but the research suggested that they may also backfire. As the constraints on
consumers imply a reduced likelihood of the event -- such as taking holidays or
smoking cigarettes -- in the future, people may feel the last time they indulged
in the activity to be more distant, and therefore finding it more alluring. So
the restrictions these people give themselves may actually make it easier for
them to justify their indulgent behaviors -- and encourage them to do it again.
Kao Si, Robert S.
Wyer, and Xianchi Dai (2016), "Looking
Forward and Looking Back: The Likelihood of an Event's Future Reoccurrence
Affects Perceptions of the Time It Occurred in the Past," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,
This article was
first published in the China Business Knowledge website by CUHK Business
About CUHK Business School
Business School comprises two schools -- Accountancy and Hotel and
Tourism Management -- and four departments -- Decision Sciences and
Managerial Economics, Finance, Management and Marketing. Established
in Hong Kong in 1963, it is the first business school to offer BBA, MBA and
Executive MBA programmes in the region. Today, the School
offers 8 undergraduate programmes and 20
graduate programmes including MBA, EMBA,
Master, MSc, MPhil and Ph.D.
the Financial Times Global MBA Ranking 2018,
CUHK MBA is ranked 43rd. In FT's 2017 EMBA ranking, CUHK EMBA is ranked 32nd
in the world. CUHK Business School has the largest number of business alumni (34,000+)
among universities/business schools in Hong Kong -- many of whom are key
business leaders. The School currently has about 4,400
undergraduate and postgraduate students and Professor Kalok Chan is the Dean of
CUHK Business School.
More information is available at www.bschool.cuhk.edu.hk
or by connecting with CUHK Business School
on Facebook: www.facebook.com/cuhkbschool
and LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/school/3923680/.