Declinism: how rosy retrospection impacts decision-making

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“It was better before,” says your friend. “Ha, those were the days,” your reply with a sigh. Declinism is the belief that societies tend towards decline, often linked with rosy retrospection—our tendency to view the past more favourably and the future more negatively. It may seem harmless, but declinism can cloud your judgement and lead to bad decisions. How can you avoid it?

The history of declinism

Declinism is not new. The latin phrase “memoria praeteritorum bonorum can be roughly translated into English as “the past is always well remembered.” This memory bias has been described by writer Jemina Lewis as a “trick of the mind” and as an “emotional strategy, something comforting to snuggle up to when the present day seems intolerably bleak.”

The modern definition of declinism can be traced back to the work of Edward Gibbon, who was an English historian, writer and Member of Parliament. Between 1776 and 1788, he published The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which he argues that the Roman Empire collapsed due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens—who became spoiled, lazy, and more prone to hiring foreign mercenaries to manage the defence of state. Gibbon warned Europe’s great powers against falling prey to the same fate.

The word “declinism” became popular after German historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler published his book series The Decline of the West. In his book, he claims that history had witnessed the rise and fall of several civilizations, such as the Egyptian, the Classical, the Chinese and the Mesoamerican civilizations. Furthermore, he asserts that Western civilization is in decline, and that decline is inevitable.

When declinism clouds our judgement

The way we consider the past, the present, and the future has an effect on what we believe and how we act. While research shows that the illusions created by rosy retrospection can have a positive impact on our mental well-being (because a positive memory will make you happier), they can also alter our memories in ways that affect our present decisions.

One of the major problems with declinism is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Josef Joffe, editor and Senior Fellow of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, explains that “obsessively fretting about your possible decline can be a good way to produce it.”

Another issue is that an overly rosy outlook on the past can cause us to ignore our past mistakes, in a way that prevents us from learning from them; combined with declinism and the belief that the future will be worse, it may lead it us repeat the same behaviours without betting on ourselves or other favourable outcomes. “The past was great, the future is bleak—I’ll just play it safe and stick to what I know,” you may think. Not a great mindset for personal growth.

How to avoid the trap of declinism

Of course, things are not always going up and to the right. Civilizations fall, startups fail, relationships fall apart. Avoiding the trap of declinism does not mean you need to have a positive outlook on everything—rather, it means you should be nuanced in the way you consider the past and predict the future. A few strategies can help avoiding declinism:

  • Beware of rosy retrospection. A bit of healthy nostalgia won’t hurt anyone, but it is important to keep in mind how biased our memories can be. Whenever you feel overly positive about a past experience, remember that you may be judging the past disproportionately more positively than you are judging the present. If that past experience is part of your calculations for a present decision, discuss your memory with colleagues or friends to assess how accurate it is. Ask them how they remember the event, what aspects they enjoyed, and what aspect they think could have been better. You won’t be able to recollect all of the details, but try your best to paint a fair picture in your mind.
  • Practice calculated optimism. Instead of seeing the future as gloomy, explore potential areas of opportunity. Do your research and make some informed bets. Not all of your predictions will come true, some of your ideas or investments will fail, the goal is to keep on being part of the game. As with the past, discuss the future with other people so you can form a nuanced picture in your mind.
  • Focus on long-term success. There will be ups and downs, but do not confuse a temporary drawback with an insurmountable challenge. Success is not linear. Even if things get hard, keep on investing in yourself, your loved ones and your projects. The only real failure is stagnation.

Life is full of uncertainty. Individuals, relationships, companies, and even ideas all go through cycles of growth and decline. Instead of always seeing the past as perfect and the future as bleak, practice nuanced thinking so you can achieve your long-term goals and maximize your personal growth.