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The telescoping effect

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 17, 2018

This morning on Twitter, I wrote out a list of places my brain thinks I have been to “recently”:

Berlin (17 years ago)
Thailand & Vietnam (13 years ago)
Austria (12 years ago)
Ireland (13 years ago)
London (10 years ago)
Hawaii (18 years ago)
Alaska (16 years ago)

And it’s true. I remember being in Austria not so very long ago, maybe five or seven years tops. Berlin is particularly vivid in my memory as a recent destination, perhaps because I loved being there so much.

So what’s going on here? Why don’t I have a proper sense of how much time has really passed between now and these trips? Cognitive psychologists have a name for this: the telescoping effect.

The telescoping effect (or telescoping bias) refers to the temporal displacement of an event whereby people perceive recent events as being more remote than they are and distant events as being more recent than they are. The former is known as backward telescoping or time expansion, and the latter as is known as forward telescoping. Three years is approximately the time frame in which events switch from being displaced backward in time to forward in time, with events occurring three years in the past being equally likely to be reported with forward telescoping bias as with backward telescoping bias. Although telescoping occurs in both the forward and backward directions, in general the effect is to increase the number of events reported too recently.

My faulty travel memories are a trivial example, but the telescoping effect becomes more important when people’s political actions are tied to their memories of, say, the weather, acts of terrorism, or financial events. (via @pjdoland)