We all know how much our past can shape our present. But it turns out the present can also shape the past.

While a graduate student, Chicago Booth’s Ed O’Brien, along with University of Michigan’s Phoebe C. Ellsworth and University of Southern California’s Norbert Schwarz, conducted a series of studies that asked people to recall how pleasant their lives used to be in the past, either while they were or were not experiencing some new stressor in the present. Of course, nothing about the past actually changes based on present events, and so these recollections should have remained identical. But this is not what O’Brien found. Rather, bad events in the present made similar events in the past suddenly seem rosier.

“We found some interesting contrast effects,” says O’Brien. “If something bad is happening in the present—if you just got dumped, for example—and we ask you, ‘How good was your romantic life last year?’ you will suddenly view it as much better than it actually was at the time.”

This rosiness has a cost. “People often use their memories to determine their behavior in the present,” says O’Brien, “but it’s surprisingly easy to push these memories around.”

For example, getting dumped today may suddenly lead you to perceive your past relationships as especially good by comparison—and so you may be mistakenly compelled to rekindle old flames that are better off staying unlit.

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