People who feel good about their romantic relationship show a stronger positive bias toward the future of the relationship, and a weaker negative bias toward the relationship in the past. These findings, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, suggest that a person’s current feelings about their relationship are projected onto how they perceive that relationship in the past and future.
People tend to be biased toward seeing themselves in a positive light. This bias extends toward a person’s intimate relationships — people tend to perceive their partners and their relationships as more favorable than they actually are. This lends itself to a phenomenon called illusory improvement, whereby a person views their relationship as having been worse in the past than it actually was to create the illusion that the relationship has improved.
“I’m interested in how accurate people are about all kinds of predictions and memories in their life – about relationships, about when a project will be done, how much money will be spent next weekend,” said study author Johanna Peetz, an associate professor at Carleton University and the director of the TRI Lab.
“People are often wrong about how they used to feel in the past or how they will feel in the future. I think identifying these errors in cognition are particularly important when it comes to judging relationships. People try to make sense of what their relationship is like all the time and knowing whether these personal stories are built on accurate or biased information is important.”
Peetz and her team conducted a series of studies to explore how people’s current perceptions of their relationship might impact these relationship biases.
A first correlational study had people in relationships complete questionnaires at several time points, each one six months apart. At Time 1, participants rated their current relationship quality and then rated what they expected their relationship quality to be in six months. At Time 2, they again rated their current relationship quality and their expected relationship quality in six months and additionally rated what their relationship quality was six months ago. Finally, at Time 3, they rated their current relationship quality and their relationship quality six months ago.
The results revealed that participants tended to show a negative retrospective bias, rating their relationship to have been worse six months ago than they had actually rated it at the time. But the higher a person’s current rating of their relationship, the less they showed this negative bias toward the past. Also, the more they showed a positive forecasting bias — forecasting a more positive evaluation of the future of their relationship.
Further analysis suggested that these effects were not due to actual differences in past or future relationship quality, but seemed to be the result of projection. Participants who felt better in their current relationships tended to put a more positive spin on their relationship’s past and future.
The results were then replicated in a follow-up experimental study. Participants rated their past and present relationship quality at two different time points. At both time points, participants were randomly assigned to a manipulation that either induced higher relationship quality or lower relationship quality. This was achieved by having participants ponder over a positive or a negative characteristic of their partner.
Similar to the first study, those who underwent the enhanced relationship quality manipulation showed a positive forecasting bias and less of a negative retrospective bias. And again, these effects appeared to be driven by a projection of their current feelings about the relationship. A rosy outlook on the present created “a rosier-than-actual prognosis” for the future and a lower likelihood of remembering a “darker-than-actual past.”
“When trying to understand and evaluate your relationship, you’re likely seeing it through the lens of your current feelings,” Peetz told PsyPost. “So if you’re currently a little miffed at your partner you might not give the relationship all the credit it deserved and recall it being worse than it was at the time. The same is true for forecasting the future: current feelings will distort how you think you’ll feel at a future point in time. Be aware that your memories and forecasts might be biased and don’t make important decisions about the future of your relationship when in the grip of a strong emotion!”
Peetz and her fellow study authors point out that although the findings revealed a mean-level retrospective bias, the effect size was small, suggesting that “any conclusions about the extent of retrospective or forecasting bias be interpreted with caution.” Nonetheless, the overall findings offer convincing evidence that the way a person feels about their relationship today influences the way they remember and imagine the relationship in the future.
“Some people keep a written or photo diary. Doing this might remind you of how you used to feel about something and enable you to construct more accurate stories about what your relationship is like across time,” Peetz said.
The study, “Projecting current feelings into the past and future: Better current relationship quality reduces negative retrospective bias and increases positive forecasting bias”, was authored by Johanna Peetz, Justin P. K. Shimizu, and Courtney Royle.