According to temporal self appraisal theory, uplifting events in the lives of individuals often seem quite recent in time. Individuals, therefore, tend to perceive these positive moments as more relevant or representative of their existing lives. Upsetting events, in contrast, seem quite remote in time. These aversive moments, thus, feel like they pertain to a different time--almost to a different person (Wilson, Gunn, & Ross, 2009).
For example, in a study conducted by Sanna, Chang, and Carter (2004), participants engaged in a negotiation task. Next, they received either positive or negative feedback about their performance. Three months later they were asked to recall their experience. If they had received positive feedback, they felt the event seemed recent. If they had received negative feedback, they felt the event seemed more remote in time.
This bias tends to bolster satisfaction with life and self esteem. In particular, because of this bias, uplifting events seem more integral, and upsetting events seem less integral, to the identity of individuals.
According to temporal self appraisal theory, the bias in which uplifting events seem recent and upsetting events seem remote is underpinned by a motivation to enhance attitudes of individuals towards themselves. That is, as a consequence of this bias, individuals should be more likely to perceive their life, qualities, and identity as favorable rather than unfavorable.
In a study conducted by Wilson and Ross (2003), for example, some participants were instructed to reflect upon the extent to which high school feels recent relative to their birth. For these participants, high school obviously seemed very recent. Other participants were instructed to reflect upon the extent to which high school seems recent relative to their teenage years. For these participants, high school did not seem as recent.
Next, participants reflected upon social difficulties they experienced at high school. If high school was perceived as recent, these participants felt they were still awkward in social settings today. If high school was perceived as remote in time, these participants did not feel as awkward today. Unpleasant events, if perceived as distance in time, seem to be isolated from current appraisals.
A variety of studies have indicated that perhaps this bias--that uplifting events seem recent and that upsetting events seem remote--is underpinned by a motivation to enhance their attitudes or evaluations of themselves. To illustrate, in a study conducted by Wilson and Ross (2002& cited by Wilson, Gunn, & Ross, 2009), some participants were instructed to deliberate over their most important value--an exercise that has been shown to instill a sense of integrity (Steele, 1998& see self affirmation theory. Other participants did not reflect upon their most important value, instead deliberating over a priority that might be important to other individuals.
If participants did not reflect upon their most important value, the usual pattern of biases was observed: positive events seemed recent in time, whereas negative events seemed distant in time. This bias dissipated, however, after individuals deliberated over their most important value. Conceivably, these individuals did not experience the need to enhance their attitudes towards themselves further, and hence the primary motivation that underpins this bias diminished.
Ross and Wilson (2002) also confirmed that positive events are perceived as recent, and negative events are perceived as distant, primarily to enhance the attitudes of individuals towards themselves. For example, in their study, some participants were asked to recall proud or embarrassing events that were experienced by an acquaintance. In this instance, both proud and embarrassing events were perceived as equally distant in time. Participants were not motivated to regulate the temporal proximity of these events beacuse these episodes were unrelated to their appraisal of themselves.
To enhance their attitudes towards themselves, individuals also like to perceive the groups to which they belong as favorable and desirable as well. Accordingly, they also bias the proximity of positive or negative events, merely to fulfill this goal. In one study, reported by Gunn and Wilson (2007& cited by Wilson, Gunn, & Ross, 2009), Canadian participants read an extract about the involvement of their nation in a specific operation, called the Dieppe Raid, during WWII. Some participants felt this extract demonstrated the heroism of Canadian military forces& these participants generally felt the event was recent in time. Other participants, who felt this extract highlighted the failings of Canadian military forces, perceived this event as more distant in time (for related results, see Peetz, Gunn, & Wilson, 2009& cited by Wilson, Gunn, & Ross, 2009).
Sometimes, participants recall events in which they could not have controlled the outcome. Participants who win a lottery, for example, seldom feel they were responsible for this success. As Haddock (2004) showed, when participants do not assume responsibility for success or failures, but ascribe these events to factors they could not control, this bias diminishes. That is, in these contexts, participants do not necessarily perceive positive events as close in time or negative events as distant in time.
From the perspective of construal level theory, individuals tend to associate concrete, tangible representations of events with proximity in time. In contrast, they associate abstract, intangible represents of events with distance in time. As a consequence, individuals should occasionally reflect upon the specific details of positive events: the sounds, sights, and smells they can recall. These events, therefore, might seem more recent in time, and wellbeing might be enhanced accordingly.
Conversely, individuals should reflect upon the abstract, intangible themes that underpin some of their negative experiences--perhaps causes or consequences that correspond to several aversive episodes. These events, as a consequence, might seem more distant in time, which protects self esteem (see also Gebauer, Broemer, Haddock, & von Hecker, 2008).
This bias, unlike many other distortions, is unlikely to elicit any adverse consequences (for a discussion, see Wilson, Gunn, & Ross, 2009). In particular, other distortions, such as the optimism bias--in which individuals feel they are not as vulnerable to hazards as a typical person--can culminate in unsuitable behaviors. In contrast, perceiving a positive event as close in time is unlikely to compromise decisions.
This theory can be applied to curb radicalization or terrorist inclinations. When radical individuals are asked to describe, in depth, previous attempts to act supportively towards the state, these vivid episodes might seem more recent. Because these behaviors might seem recent, the self concept of these individuals might change. They might perceive themselves as supporters, and not opponents, of the state.
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Ross, M., Heine, S. J., Wilson, A. E., & Sugimori, S. (2005). Cross-cultural discrepancies in self appraisals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1175-1188.
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Wilson, A. E., Gunn, G. R., & Ross, M. (2009). The role of subjective time in identity regulation. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23, 1164-1178.
Wilson, A. E., & Ross, M. (2001). From chump to champ: People's appraisals of their earlier and current selves. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 572-584.
Wilson, A. E., & Ross, M. (2003). The identity function of autobiographical memory: Time is on our side. Memory, 11, 137-149.
Last Update: 7/5/2016