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It feels like yesterday: Self-esteem, valence of personal past experiences, and judgments of subjective distance

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Abstract

Supporting predictions from temporal self-appraisal theory, participants in 3 studies reported feeling farther from former selves and experiences with unfavorable implications for their current self-view than from equally distant selves and experiences with flattering implications. This distancing bias occurred when assignment to negative and positive pasts was random, for both achievement and social outcomes and for single episodes as well as longer term experiences. Consistent with a motivational interpretation, the distancing bias was stronger among high than low self-esteem participants and occurred for personal but not for acquaintances' past events. Frequency of rehearsal and ease of recall of past episodes also predicted feelings of distance, but these variables did not account for the Self-Esteem x Valence interaction on subjective distancing of personal events.
PERSONALITY PROCESSES AND INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES
It Feels Like Yesterday: Self-Esteem, Valence of Personal Past
Experiences, and Judgments of Subjective Distance
Michael Ross
University of Waterloo Anne E. Wilson
Wilfrid Laurier University
Supporting predictions from temporal self-appraisal theory, participants in 3 studies reported feeling
farther from former selves and experiences with unfavorable implications for their current self-view than
from equally distant selves and experiences with flattering implications. This distancing bias occurred
when assignment to negative and positive pasts was random, for both achievement and social outcomes
and for single episodes as well as longer term experiences. Consistent with a motivational interpretation,
the distancing bias was stronger among high than low self-esteem participants and occurred for personal
but not for acquaintances’ past events. Frequency of rehearsal and ease of recall of past episodes also
predicted feelings of distance, but these variables did not account for the Self-Esteem Valence
interaction on subjective distancing of personal events.
People often promote their associations with successful individ-
uals and downplay their connections to unsuccessful persons (Cial-
dini, 1989; Cialdini et al., 1976; Cialdini & Richardson, 1980;
Snyder, Lassegard, & Ford, 1986). For example, spectators may
report a victory by their favorite sports team as “we won” and a
defeat as “they lost” (Cialdini et al., 1976). The purpose of these
distancing tactics seems clear: People seek to bask in reflected
glory and avoid reflected failure. Researchers suggest that the
underlying motivation for the behavior is either impression man-
agement (Cialdini, 1989; Cialdini et al., 1976; Snyder et al., 1986)
or the desire to maintain and enhance self-regard (Tesser, 1988).
In the current research, we focus on a private, intraindividual
distancing phenomenon. Participants confidentially reported their
subjective distance from former selves and past outcomes. We
proposed that individuals would feel farther from personal failures
than from successes, even when the actual temporal distance (i.e.,
calendar or clock time) was the same. The theory of temporal
self-appraisal (Ross & Wilson, 2000; Wilson & Ross, 2001) pro-
vides the rationale for the studies. In this theory, people’s former
selves are regarded as analogous to other individuals, and variables
affecting social comparison are considered pertinent to temporal
comparisons (although the impact of these factors can be quite
different in the two domains; Wilson & Ross, 2001). A variable of
particular relevance to both social comparison research (Tesser,
1980, 1988; Tesser & Campbell, 1983; Tesser & Paulhus, 1983)
and the present studies is the closeness of a comparison target. In
the current context, we use the term closeness to refer to people’s
subjective impression of the temporal distance between the present
and the past. This sense of nearness is often related to the passage
of time: People typically feel closer to episodes that happened
yesterday than to events that occurred a year earlier. As William
James (1890/1950) and many other psychologists (e.g., Block,
1989; N. R. Brown, Rips, & Shevell, 1985; D. L. Schacter, 1996;
S. Schachter & Gross, 1968) have noted, however, the experience
of time is influenced by factors other than actual duration. Con-
sequently, temporal self-appraisal theory treats time as a psycho-
logical variable: Past episodes and associated selves can feel close
or remote, almost regardless of their actual proximity. Although a
man may be fully aware that he graduated from university 25 years
earlier, that time of his life may feel like yesterday to him. In
contrast, the real yesterday can sometimes feel distant.
On the premise that individuals in western culture are motivated
to think highly of themselves (Baumeister, 1998; Higgins, 1996;
Sedikides, 1993; Taylor & Brown, 1988), temporal self-appraisal
theory suggests that people tend to react to their past selves and
outcomes in a manner that makes them feel good about themselves
now. It is hypothesized that people can maintain high levels of
self-regard by enhancing earlier selves that feel close and dispar-
aging past selves that feel distant (Wilson & Ross, 2001). Because
Michael Ross, Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo,
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada; Anne E. Wilson, Department of Psychology,
Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
This research was supported by a research grant from the Social Sci-
ences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and a Social Sciences
and Humanities Research Council of Canada doctoral fellowship. We
thank Roger Buehler, Lisa Libby, Cathy McFarland, and Steve Spencer for
their helpful comments on versions of this article and Sara Konrath for her
assistance in conducting the studies.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Michael
Ross, Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, On-
tario N2L 3G1, Canada, or to Anne E. Wilson, Department of Psychology,
Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario N2L 3C5, Canada. E-mail:
mross@uwaterloo.ca or awilson@wlu.ca
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002, Vol. 82, No. 5, 792–803
Copyright 2002 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 0022-3514/02/$5.00 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.82.5.792
792
individuals can continue to experience pride from recent achieve-
ments and discomfort from recent failures, they should be moti-
vated to think favorably of former selves that feel subjectively
close. As subjective temporal distance increases, the accomplish-
ments of an earlier self are less likely to benefit the current self;
similarly, former faults are less apt to tarnish the present self.
There is an implicit statute of limitations for many (although not
all; see Wilson & Ross, 2001) past successes and failings: With
time, their power to honor or discredit the perpetrator diminishes
as more recent outcomes take precedence. According to temporal
self-appraisal theory, individuals may actually benefit psycholog-
ically from exaggerating the inadequacies of subjectively distant
former selves. These inferior selves can serve as downward com-
parisons that help people to appreciate their present accomplish-
ments (Albert, 1977; Wills, 1981, 1987; Wilson & Ross, 2000,
2001). Not all distant selves can stand as relevant comparisons,
however. The theory posits latitudes of temporal appraisal that
include the set of former selves deemed pertinent to the current self
for purposes of comparison. Individuals should not be able to boost
their self-regard by derogating nonrelevant earlier selves. For
example, most adults are unlikely to derive satisfaction from
comparing their current achievements with outcomes attained by
their 10-year-old self.
Temporal self-appraisal theory predicts that people should eval-
uate past selves that feel close more favorably than past selves that
feel distant when actual temporal distance is held constant. Recent
research that experimentally manipulated the subjective distance
of past selves provides support for this hypothesis (Wilson & Ross,
2001). For example, participants were induced to feel that the
beginning of their present academic term was either relatively
close or relatively distant. They then retrospectively evaluated
themselves at the start of the term. Individuals in the subjectively
distant condition were more disapproving of their earlier self.
Additional research shows that peoples current self-evaluations
are more influenced by outcomes that feel recent rather than
distant, even when actual temporal distance is held constant (Wil-
son, 2000).
In the research reported by Wilson and Ross (2001) and Wilson
(2000), subjective distance was an independent variable. However,
temporal self-appraisal theory also includes subjective distance as
a dependent variable, and that is the focus of the present studies.
People should be motivated to regard past experiences (and asso-
ciated former selves) that could have unfavorable implications for
their current self-appraisals as farther away than experiences that
could have flattering implications. Thus, a student who has per-
formed poorly on an exam should subsequently feel more distant
from the test than would a person who did well. From the per-
spective of temporal self-appraisal theory, such disparities in judg-
ments of subjective time reflect the motivation to maintain favor-
able self-regard. Individuals can attribute a subjectively distant
failure to an inferior, former self (e.g., the old me) and dissociate
their current self from blame. In contrast, people can continue to
claim credit for former accomplishments by feeling close to such
episodes. Subjectively recent accomplishments belong to the
present self almost as much as to an earlier self.
Although these differences in feelings of distance could include
divergent estimates of actual time, this need not be the case.
Temporal self-appraisal theory makes predictions about subjective
distance, not judgments of calendar time. Both failing and suc-
cessful students may be fully aware that they wrote an exam 2
weeks previously, but their experience of subjective distance may
differ. The exam may feel more remote to unsuccessful students,
who can thereby separate themselves from their failure. Subjective
time estimates are an additional tool that individuals can use in
their efforts to minimize the consequences of past negative events
(Taylor, 1991).
In the current research, we studied peoples assessments of the
subjective closeness of past selves and episodes differing in va-
lence while controlling actual temporal distance. Also, we exam-
ined the relation of individual differences in self-esteem to judg-
ments of subjective distance. According to temporal self-appraisal
theory, people adjust the subjective distance of past outcomes to
maintain favorable self-views. Previous research indicates that
individuals with high self-esteem (HSEs) are generally more adept
at deflecting threats to positive self-regard than are persons with
lower self-esteem (LSEs; Baumeister, 1998; Blaine & Crocker,
1993; Mussweiler, Gabriel, & Bodenhausen, 2000). HSEs are
more likely than LSEs to take greater personal responsibility for
success than for failure (Blaine & Crocker, 1993) and to dwell on
their strengths rather than their weaknesses following failure (J. D.
Brown & Smart, 1991; Dodgson & Wood, 1998; Steele, Spencer,
& Lynch, 1993). HSEs are more apt than LSEs to recall positive
memories when in a negative mood (Smith & Petty, 1995), a
propensity that may help alleviate depressed affect. Mussweiler et
al. (2000) reported findings that are particularly relevant to the
current research. HSEs were more inclined to ward off the threat
posed by an unfavorable social comparison by dissociating them-
selves from the comparison individual. Along the same lines, we
propose that HSEs should be more likely than LSEs to subjectively
distance themselves from former selves and outcomes that could
have negative implications for their present self-worth. As well,
HSEs should feel closer than should LSEs to earlier selves and
outcomes with positive implications for their current self-regard.
HSEs can thereby preserve their favorable self-regard by separat-
ing their current self from earlier failings while continuing to take
credit for equally distant former accomplishments.
Overview of the Present Studies
We conducted three studies to examine the relation of feelings
of subjective distance to outcome and self-esteem while control-
ling for actual temporal distance. In Study 1, participants reported
how distant they felt from socially successful or unsuccessful past
selves. In Study 2, participants indicated the subjective distance of
a university course in which they performed relatively well or
poorly. In Study 2, we also investigated whether frequency of
thinking about the course mediated the impact of course outcome
on subjective distance judgments. In Study 3, participants reported
the subjective distance of a flattering or embarrassing incident that
occurred to either themselves or their acquaintances. We assume
that a tendency to feel more removed from unfavorable than
favorable episodes is motivated by a desire to maintain positive
self-regard. If so, this bias should be evident in participants
reports of the subjective distance of their own but not of their
acquaintancespast outcomes. In this third study, we also exam-
ined the possible contribution of ease of recall of past episodes to
subjective time estimates. To extend the generality of the findings,
793
SUBJECTIVE DISTANCE OF PAST EXPERIENCES
we varied the measures of subjective distance and self-esteem
across studies.
Study 1
In Study 1, university students described their degree of social
success during their last term in high school and then reported how
distant they felt from that high school self. Participants also com-
pleted a measure of self-esteem. We tested the prediction that
participants would feel farther away from socially unsuccessful
past selves than from socially successful past selves and that HSEs
would be more likely than LSEs to display this pattern of
distancing.
Method
Participants. Five hundred fifty-seven students in an introductory psy-
chology course participated in return for partial course credit. Of those, 544
students completed all of the relevant measures. The 4 oldest participants
(mean age 41.00 years) were excluded as outliers because their actual
(much longer) distance from high school had a disproportionate influence
on the relation between subjective and actual time. The final sample
included 306 women and 234 men (mean age 19.60, range 1730
years).
Procedure. Participants received a package of questionnaires in class
and returned it completed several days later. As well as the pertinent items,
the booklet contained a number of personality measures and demographic
questions inserted by other researchers and unrelated to the current study.
Participants completed Rosenbergs (1965) measure of self-esteem several
pages before they answered the social success items. They evaluated their
social success during their final year of high school on 7-point scales with
endpoints labeled popular/unpopular,socially skilled/not socially skilled,
accepted/rejected,cool/uncool,a lot of friends/few friends,friendly/un-
friendly,sociable/unsociable,lonely/not lonely, and well-liked/disliked.
Next, participants indicated the subjective distance of their high school self
by placing marks on two 190-mm lines. The endpoints of the first line were
labeled feel very close to my past self and feel very distant from my past
self. The endpoints of the second line were labeled my past self feels very
near and my past self feels very far away. Finally, participants reported
when they had finished their last term of high school.
Results
Preliminary analyses revealed no effects for gender in this or
subsequent studies. The analyses are reported collapsed across this
factor. Participantsresponses were averaged across the nine items
assessing social success (Cronbachs
.85) and the two items
assessing the subjective distance of the former self (Cronbachs
.93). A positive correlation between self-esteem and partici-
pantsreports of past social success indicated that social success
increased with self-esteem, r(538) .33, p.001.
Next, we examined peoples reports of actual distance in months
since their last term of high school. A regression analysis with
actual distance as the criterion variable and self-esteem, social
success, and their interaction as predictors revealed that reports of
social skill decreased,
⫽⫺.35, t(337) 8.09, p.001, and
self-esteem increased,
.12, t(337) 2.76, p.01, as calendar
time since high school increased. It is important to note, however,
that the Social Success Self-Esteem interaction was not signif-
icant,
⫽⫺.04, t(336) 1. Because differences in real time may
influence reports of subjective distance, we controlled for time in
months in the first step of all regression analyses on subjective
distance in this and subsequent studies. We therefore investigated
the psychological impact of factors such as outcome valence and
self-esteem after the effect of calendar time had been partialed out.
To examine the predicted interaction between self-esteem and
social success on assessments of distance, we conducted a multiple
regression analysis with subjective distance as the criterion vari-
able. All predictor variables were centered (the mean for that
variable is subtracted from each score to yield a mean score of
zero), as recommended by Aiken and West (1991). Standardized
betas for each step of the regression analysis are reported in
Table 1. In Step 1 of the analysis, we entered the number of
months since participantslast term of high school. It is not
surprising that participants reported feeling more subjectively dis-
tant from their high school self as the number of months since high
school increased. At Step 2 of the analysis, we simultaneously
entered participantsself-esteem scores and their evaluations of
their former social skills. Feelings of closeness to the high school
self increased with self-esteem. In addition, we obtained the pre-
dicted relation between social success and subjective distance:
Participants reported feeling farther from socially unsuccessful
than from equally distant socially successful high school selves. To
evaluate the prediction that HSEs should be especially likely to
show greater distancing of unsuccessful former selves, we entered
the Social Success Self-Esteem interaction term at Step 3. The
interaction was statistically significant.
To examine the interaction more closely, we conducted addi-
tional regression analyses using rescaled values for self-esteem, as
outlined in Aiken and West (1991). The zero value for the scale
was set at one standard deviation above and below the mean for
HSEs and LSEs, respectively. For HSEs, subjective distance in-
creased as the social success of the past self decreased,
⫽⫺.21,
t(535) 3.47, p.001. A similar trend for LSEs was nonsignif-
icant,
⫽⫺.07, t(535) 1.19, p.24 (see Figure 1). As
predicted, therefore, HSEs were especially likely to judge success-
ful past selves to be closer than unsuccessful past selves.
It is conceivable that LSEs are less likely to shift their subjective
distance estimates because their judgments are more closely wed-
ded to calendar time than are the estimates of HSEs. To examine
this possibility, we calculated the correlations between subjective
distance and calendar time for HSEs and LSEs separately (on the
basis of a median split on the self-esteem variable). HSEsand
LSEssubjective time estimates were similarly correlated with
actual time, r(285) .22, p.001, and r(258) .27, p.001,
respectively.
Table 1
Regressing Subjective Distance From Last Term of High School
Onto Past Social Success and Self-Esteem (Study 1)
Predictor
t
Step 1
No. months since target period .24 5.77***
Step 2
Self-esteem .15 3.54***
Past social success .13 2.83**
Step 3
Past Social Success Self-Esteem .08 2.03*
Note. df 538 at Step 1, 536 at Step 2, and 535 at Step 3.
*p.05. ** p.01. *** p.001.
794 ROSS AND WILSON
Discussion
Participants felt closer to socially successful than to socially
unsuccessful high school selves. This relation between past social
success and subjective distance was evident among HSEs and
nonsignificant among LSEs. As well, HSEs perceived themselves
to be more socially successful in high school and to be closer to
their high school self than did LSEs. This tendency of HSEs to
claim greater social success in high school may limit the general-
izability of the results. Within the levels of social success that
LSEs reported, distancing was not significantly related to the
success of past selves. Within the levels of social success that
HSEs reported, distancing was associated with the achievements of
past selves. We cannot be certain that the obtained pattern of
distancing is due to self-esteem level; perhaps it is associated with
the differential levels of social success reported, on average, by
HSEs and LSEs. To eliminate this concern in Study 2, we targeted
outcomes that should be unrelated to self-esteem.
The finding that evaluations of past social success were in-
versely related to actual distance from high school is intriguing. It
is conceivable that peoples standards change with time (Higgins
& Lurie, 1983) such that people become increasingly critical of
their earlier behavior. Alternatively, perhaps students are moti-
vated to criticize more remote high school selves (Wilson & Ross,
2001), or students who are somewhat older than the class average
in university were actually rather unpopular in high school. It is
less likely that people systematically shifted their actual graduation
date, because students presumably know when they finished high
school. Regardless of the reason for this relation between calendar
time and perceived social success, the effects of subjective dis-
tance existed beyond the influence of calendar time. In Study 2, we
obtained reports of calendar time before we randomly assigned
participants to an outcome condition. This procedure should re-
duce the probability of a relation between outcome and calendar
time.
Study 2
A great deal of past research reveals virtually no link between
self-esteem and academic grades (Dawes, 1994; Hansford &
Hattie, 1982). In Study 2, we examined the relation between
studentsself-esteem and their estimates of the subjective dis-
tance of university courses in which they performed relatively
well or poorly. Participants were randomly assigned to remem-
ber the course in which they received either their best or their
worst grade in the previous semester. Random assignment to
grade condition guarantees that participants who report positive
and negative past outcomes do not differ in some other, un-
known way that might affect the results. After reporting their
grade in the target course, participants indicated how distant the
course felt to them and how often they had thought about the
course since it ended.
This thought-frequency measure allows us to examine whether
differential rehearsal might mediate the interaction of outcome and
self-esteem on subjective distance. Past research indicates that
HSEs are less likely to dwell on negative outcomes than are LSEs
and more inclined to focus on happier matters (J. D. Brown &
Smart, 1991; Dodgson & Wood, 1998). If such differential re-
hearsal occurs, it could have implications for peoples subjective
time estimates. Rehearsal increases ease of recall (Betz & Skow-
ronski, 1997; D. L. Schacter, 1996; Thompson, 1982; Thompson,
Skowronski, Larsen, & Betz, 1996), and people use ease of recall
as a basis for estimating the dates of world events (e.g., the
attempted assassination of President Reagan) that occurred during
their lifetime (N. R. Brown et al., 1985). When people rely on the
(often correct) heuristic that memory for events tends to degrade
over time, they judge episodes that they recall readily to be more
recent than ones they recall with greater difficulty (N. R. Brown et
al., 1985). However, if ease of recall is influenced by factors other
than the passage of time (e.g., differential rehearsal), then it can
systematically bias dating judgments.
Although the dating of specific, important personal events
seems to be reasonably accurate and unbiased (Betz & Skowron-
ski, 1997; Thompson et al., 1996), it is nonetheless conceivable
that feelings of subjective time are affected by differential re-
hearsal. Suppose HSEs think more frequently about courses in
which they performed well and are consequently better able to
recall details about those courses. This differential rehearsal might
cause HSEs to feel closer to courses in which they received high
grades, even though those courses are no more recent in calendar
time. Similarly, LSEsfeelings of subjective distance may be
affected by the degree to which LSEs think about courses in which
they performed well or poorly.
Temporal self-appraisal theory posits that feelings of subjective
time are influenced directly by a persons context, focus, and
motives (Ross & Wilson, 2000; Wilson, 2000; Wilson & Ross,
2001). The theory does not require that the effects of these vari-
ables on subjective distance be mediated by rehearsal over time.
As past research on dating assigns a major role to rehearsal and
recall, however, it is important to investigate their contribution to
reports of subjective time.
Note that we used a different measure of subjective distance
than in Study 1. Participants were asked how distant they felt from
a specific course rather than from a past self. We expected that
students would report feeling farther away from a course when
they received mediocre rather than good grades and that this
discrepancy in subjective distance would be greater for HSEs.
Figure 1. Interaction of self-esteem (SE) and past social success on
subjective distance from high school (Study 1). Low social success and low
SE are defined as at least one standard deviation below the mean; high
social success and high SE are defined as at least one standard deviation
above the mean. Higher numbers indicate greater subjective distance.
795
SUBJECTIVE DISTANCE OF PAST EXPERIENCES
Method
Participants. Three hundred fifty-seven students (112 men and 244
women, 1 unspecified) in an introductory psychology course received
partial course credit for their participation (mean age 19.50, range
1747 years). One hundred seventy-three students were randomly assigned
to the best grade condition, and 184 were assigned to the worst grade
condition.
Procedure. Participants received a booklet of questionnaires in class
and returned it completed several days later. The items relevant to the
current study were contained in an academic questionnaire. The booklet
included a number of personality measures and demographic questions
inserted by other researchers that were unrelated to the current study. The
booklet also contained Rosenbergs (1965) Self-Esteem Scale. This scale
was placed 13 pages before the academic questionnaire in 193 of the
completed booklets and 13 pages after this questionnaire in the remaining
164 completed booklets.
The academic questionnaire contained five items. Participants first re-
ported the dates of their last school term.
1
They were then randomly
assigned to record either the best or the worst final grade that they received
last term (grade condition). Next, they reported the subjective distance of
the course in which they received that grade (best or worst). They re-
sponded on a 10-point scale with endpoints labeled feels like yesterday (1)
and feels far away (10). They then estimated how frequently they had
thought about the target course since it ended. They were informed that
their thoughts about the course could include thinking about exams, as-
signments, or any other aspect of the course. They responded on a 7-point
scale ranging from almost never (1) to almost all of the time (7). Finally,
they reported their satisfaction with their grade on a 10-point scale with the
end points labeled very satisfied (1) and not at all satisfied (10).
Results
Preliminary analyses. As expected, there was no relation be-
tween self-esteem and grade reported in either the best, r(171)
.06, or the worst, r(182) 0.00, course conditions. Overall,
participants were more satisfied with their best (M3.91) than
with their worst (M6.30) grades, F(1,351) 55.53, p001.
2
There were no significant main effects for order (Self-Esteem
Scale preceded or followed the dependent variables) or level of
self-esteem on satisfaction. Controlling for satisfaction levels did
not qualify any of the following results. A regression analysis with
reports of the actual distance (in months) from participantslast
school term as the criterion variable and self-esteem, outcome, and
their interaction as predictors revealed no significant effects (all
ts1).
Subjective distance. In the initial regression analysis, subjec-
tive distance from the course served as the criterion variable. All
continuous predictor variables were centered. To assess any effects
due to the order of placement of the self-esteem and academic
questionnaires, we included order as a predictor as well as its
interactions with all other predictors. Number of months since the
course was completed was entered in Step 1. Grade condition (best
vs. worst grade), self-esteem, and order (self-esteem measure
completed before or after academic questionnaire) were then en-
tered simultaneously in Step 2; their two-way product terms were
entered in Step 3, and the three-way interaction was entered in
Step 4. The only interaction that we expected to reach significance
was the Self-Esteem Grade Condition interaction.
Standardized betas are reported in Table 2. The closer the course
actually was (in months), the more recent it felt. Also, as predicted,
participants felt farther away from the course in which they re-
ceived their worst grade when we controlled for the actual passage
of time. Unexpectedly, participants reported feeling closer to their
target course when they had completed the Self-Esteem Scale after
the academic questionnaire, as opposed to before. It is important to
note that order did not interact significantly with any other vari-
able, and the only significant interaction was that of Grade Con-
dition Self-Esteem.
To examine the significant Grade Condition Self-Esteem
interaction more closely, we conducted separate regression analy-
ses for HSEs and LSEs using rescaled values for self-esteem (with
the zero value for the scale at one standard deviation above and
below the mean). See Figure 2 for the pattern of results. The results
are very similar, conceptually, to those obtained in Study 1. HSEs
(one standard deviation above the mean) felt more distant from
courses in which they received their worst rather than their best
grades,
⫽⫺.31, t(352) 3.57, p.001. LSEs (one standard
deviation below the mean) exhibited no significant relation be-
tween grade and subjective distance,
⫽⫺.07, t(352) 0.83.
Relation of subjective distance to calendar time. We examined
the correlations between subjective distance and calendar time for
HSEs and LSEs separately (on the basis of a median split on
self-esteem). As in Study 1, HSEsand LSEssubjective time
estimates were similarly correlated with actual time, r(184) .19,
p.008, and r(171) .18, p.02, respectively.
Frequency of recall. As expected, the more often participants
reported thinking about the target course, the more recent it
seemed in both the worst, r(182) ⫽⫺.39, p.001, and the best,
1
The University of Waterloo has many co-op students who alternate
work and school terms. The previous academic term would have been
farther away for students who had just finished a work term.
2
The degrees of freedom are reduced because 3 people did not respond
to the satisfaction question.
Table 2
Regressing Subjective Distance From Course and Frequency of
Rehearsal Onto Grade Condition, Order, and Self-Esteem
(Study 2)
Predictor
Subjective
distance Frequency of
rehearsal
t
t
Step 1
No. months ago .194 3.74*** .085 1.61
Step 2
Grade condition .190 3.66*** .189 3.62***
Self-esteem .064 1.26 .152 2.96***
Order .121 2.34* .059 1.13
Step 3
Grade Condition Self-
Esteem
.136 1.98* .032 0.47
Grade Condition
Order .040 0.50 .020 0.24
Order Self-Esteem .098 1.30 .088 1.15
Step 4
Grade Condition Self-
Esteem Order .011 0.12 .044 0.46
Note. df 355 at Step 1, 352 at Step 2, 349 at Step 3, and 348 at Step 4.
*p.05. *** p.001.
796 ROSS AND WILSON
r(170) ⫽⫺.21, p.005, grade conditions (when we controlled
for actual passage of time). A regression analysis with frequency
of rehearsal as the criterion variable (see Table 2) revealed that
grade condition and self-esteem both significantly predicted fre-
quency of rehearsal but that the Grade Condition Self-Esteem
interaction was nonsignificant. Participants reported thinking more
about courses in which they received their best grades. Also, the
higher their self-esteem, the less participants thought about courses
in which they received either their best or their worst grades. The
nonsignificant Grade Condition Self-Esteem interaction indi-
cates that the relation between grade condition and frequency of
thought was not moderated by self-esteem. The absence of an
interaction also suggests that the Grade Condition Self-Esteem
interaction on subjective distance judgments was not mediated by
differential rehearsal.
Discussion
The distancing findings conceptually replicate those obtained in
Study 1. Participants felt farther away from a negative (the course
in which they received their worst grade) than from a positive (the
course in which they received their best grade) experience. Also,
the subjective distance estimates of HSEs were influenced by the
valence of the experience, whereas those of LSEs were not. In
Study 1, participantsreports of their high school popularity were
related to their self-esteem. In Study 2, grades were unrelated to
level of self-esteem, eliminating the possibility that differences in
outcome rather than self-esteem were responsible for the subjec-
tive distance effects. In addition, participants in Study 2 were
randomly assigned to focus on the course from the previous
semester in which they received either their best or their worst
grade. If HSEs who were asked to consider their worst course had
instead been assigned to think about their best course, they would
presumably have felt quite differently about the temporal distance
of a course from the very same term. Note also that participants
reported the actual date of their last academic term shortly before
they indicated their subjective distance estimates. Although actual
time was presumably salient and did not differ by condition,
participantsreports of subjective distance still reflected the pre-
dicted effects. The findings attest to the malleability of subjective
distance judgments.
The results on the rehearsal measure suggest a potentially im-
portant link between thinking about an episode after its occurrence
and feelings of temporal distance. We were primarily interested,
however, in whether differential rehearsal accounts for the signif-
icant interaction between self-esteem and grade condition on feel-
ings of temporal distance. Relative to LSEs, do HSEs feel subjec-
tively closer to good than to bad grades because they reminisce
more frequently about their earlier successes? This does not appear
to be the case. Although LSEs reported thinking more about either
course than did HSEs, the relation of outcome to rehearsal was
similar. Both HSEs and LSEs reported thinking more about
courses in which they performed well.
Study 3
According to temporal self-appraisal theory, people adjust the
subjective distance of past outcomes to maintain favorable self-
views. HSEs should be particularly likely to dissociate themselves
from earlier disappointments by perceiving them as remote and to
maintain ownership of achievements by regarding them as recent.
Although generally consistent with this proposition, the first two
studies do not establish that HSEsfeelings of subjective distance
are influenced by a desire to maintain self-regard. Perhaps HSEs
would feel closer to positive than to negative events, regardless of
the implications of the episodes for their current self-worth. If so,
they should evidence a similar pattern of responding when report-
ing the subjective distance of events occurring to other people
rather than to themselves. Such a pattern would argue against a
motivational interpretation.
In Study 3, participants reported how close they felt to flattering
or embarrassing past episodes. The target events happened either
to the participants or to their acquaintances. If the bias in subjec-
tive distance is motivated by concerns for self-enhancement, it
should occur for personal incidents but not for acquaintancespast
events. Participants are presumably less motivated to distance the
embarrassments suffered by acquaintances, as these episodes
should not threaten respondentsself-regard. The acquaintance
condition also provided a baseline for assessing the direction of the
distancing bias. Relative to judgments about the subjective dis-
tance of other peoples outcomes, do HSEs regard negative per-
sonal outcomes as more distant, positive personal outcomes as
more recent, or both? Temporal self-appraisal theory predicts both
effects: Positive outcomes should feel more recent and negative
outcomes more distant when they have implications for individu-
alsown self-regard. Because personally threatening negative
events may exacerbate peoples desire to self-enhance, however,
the effects may potentially be stronger for unfavorable outcomes.
Negative events typically engender greater attributional and cog-
nitive activity than do positive events (Taylor, 1991).
In the previous study, we asked participants how often they had
thought about the target course to examine whether differential
rehearsal mediated the impact of outcome on subjective distance.
Although the measure of rehearsal yielded some meaningful find-
ings, it did not mediate the Grade Condition Self-Esteem inter-
action on subjective distance. It is conceivable that the retrospec-
tive measure of rehearsal was insufficiently sensitive to detect the
mediating effect of rehearsal on the subjective distance judgments
Figure 2. Grade Condition Self-Esteem (SE) interaction on subjective
distance (Study 2). Low SE is defined as at least one standard deviation
below the mean; high SE is defined as at least one standard deviation above
the mean. Higher numbers indicate greater subjective distance.
797
SUBJECTIVE DISTANCE OF PAST EXPERIENCES
of individuals varying in self-esteem. People are unlikely to be
able to accurately report their frequency of thought over a period
of several months. In Study 3, we asked participants to indicate
their current ease of recall rather than their frequency of rehearsal.
Because rehearsal contributes to memory quality (Betz & Skow-
ronski, 1997; D. L. Schacter, 1996; Thompson, 1982; Thompson et
al., 1996), we investigate the same basic question but focus on the
phenomenological outcome of rehearsal instead of the process
itself. Individuals may be able to report their current ease of recall
with greater precision than their frequency of thought over months.
Consistent with the results of the previous studies, we expected
participants to report that positive personal events felt closer than
did negative ones when we controlled for actual reported distance.
We examined whether this same bias would be evident for events
occurring to acquaintances and whether ease of recall mediated the
subjective distance judgments of HSE and LSE participants.
Method
Participants. Students in a university lounge were approached individ-
ually and invited to complete a questionnaire in exchange for a candy or a
pen. One hundred nineteen students agreed to participate. Of those, 2 could
not recall a requested event, 2 did not follow instructions, and 8 failed to
complete some or all of the main measures. These eliminated question-
naires were equally distributed across experimental conditions. The final
sample consisted of 107 participants (61 women, 46 men; mean
age 20.80, range 1826).
Procedure. All participants wrote briefly about an incident that had
occurred since the end of high school. They were randomly assigned to an
agent (self vs. acquaintance) and event valence condition (proud vs. em-
barrassing). In the self conditions, participants were asked to write about an
incident that made them feel either quite proud (e.g., a special achieve-
ment or kind act)or quite embarrassed (e.g., you said or did something
foolish).The instructions and measures were identical in the acquaintance
conditions, except that participants were asked to write about an occasion
on which they observed an acquaintance do something that made the
acquaintance feel either quite proud or quite embarrassed. Participants
were informed that their responses were anonymous and confidential. The
experimenter was unaware of participantsexperimental conditions, which
were determined by the version of the questionnaire that they completed.
The Single-Item Self-Esteem Scale (SISE), adapted from Robins,
Hendin, and Trzesniewski (2001), was included to assess self-esteem.
Participants responded to the statement I have high self-esteemon an
11-point scale (1 not very true of me,11very true of me).
3
The SISE
was presented at the beginning of the questionnaire for about half of the
participants and following the major dependent variables for the remaining
respondents.
After describing the incident, participants reported on an 11-point scale
the degree to which they (or their acquaintance) felt either proud (in the
proud condition) or embarrassed (in the embarrassed condition). They then
completed the main dependent variable, their feelings of the subjective
temporal distance of the target incident. Participants were told, Past
experiences may feel quite close or far away, regardless of how long ago
they actually occurred. Think about the incident you described above.
Place a mark through the lines below at the points that best indicate how
far away the incident feels to you.Participants responded on two 190-mm
lines with endpoints labeled feels very close/feels very distant and feels
very near/feels very far away.
Next, participants assessed the difficulty of remembering the target
incident, the importance of the event at the time of its occurrence, and its
importance now, all on 11-point scales. In both the self and the acquain-
tance conditions, participants were asked to evaluate the personal impor-
tance of the events to themselves. Participants in the acquaintance condi-
tions were then asked to indicate their relationship to the person in the
incident (options provided: virtual stranger, acquaintance, friend, close
friend, romantic partner, and relative), their liking for him or her, and how
close they felt to him or her. The latter two assessments were reported on
11-point scales. Participants were also asked to indicate when they had
graduated from high school (month, year) and when the target incident
happened (month, year) as well as their age, sex, and year in university.
After the data were collected, three coders who were unaware of self
other condition and the experimental hypotheses independently rated the
event descriptions on 11-point scales for the degree of pride or embarrass-
ment the incidents would engender (Cronbachs
.97). On the sugges-
tion of a reviewer, we had an additional two independent coders assess the
events for likely duration of impact. They evaluated the period of impact
(from less than 1 day to more than 1 year) and the likelihood that the event
was still having an effect (from not at all to very likely) on 11-point scales
(Cronbachs
.96).
Results
Manipulation checks. Participants reported the appropriate
emotions of pride in the proud conditions as well as embarrass-
ment in the embarrassed conditions. A regression analysis on
proud events revealed that agent (self vs. acquaintance), self-
esteem score, and their interaction term failed to significantly
predict ratings of pride, ts(51) 1.49, ps.14. Participants rated
their own incidents and the episodes that they ascribed to acquain-
tances as comparable on this measure (Ms9.11 and 9.55,
respectively). Similarly, ratings of embarrassing events did not
depend on agent, self-esteem, or their interaction; ts(46) 1.44,
ps.15 (Ms6.73 for self, 7.64 for acquaintance). Independent
codersmean ratings also revealed no significant differences in
ratings of pride or embarrassment for events that happened to
participants versus their acquaintance (ps.2). As well, partici-
pantslevel of self-esteem did not qualify the codersratings of
pride and embarrassment (ts1).
Regression analyses with actual distance as the criterion vari-
able revealed that the number of months since the events did not
differ significantly by agent (self vs. acquaintance) or self-esteem
(ts1.32, ps.19) but did differ by valence (proud vs. embar-
rassing), t(103) 2.02, p.046. Participants reported that em-
barrassing events occurred more recently than proud events (9.16
vs. 13.26 months). None of the interactions involving valence,
agent, and self-esteem approached significance on the measure of
actual distance (ts1.5, ps.13).
Subjective distance. Preliminary analyses revealed no signifi-
cant main effects or interactions due to the counterbalanced order
of presentation (self-esteem item presented at the beginning or end
of the questionnaire). Participantsresponses to the two subjective
distance scales were averaged for purposes of analysis (Cron-
bachs
.97). We predicted a two-way interaction between
agent and event valence. We expected that, when we controlled for
actual number of months since the episodes, participants would
3
The original scale presented by Robins et al. (2001) included only five
response alternatives. In pretesting this measure, we obtained little vari-
ance, with most participants endorsing extremely positive alternatives. We
found that an 11-point scale produced greater variance. Self-esteem reports
ranged from 2 to 11 (M7.89, SD 1.78). A median split indicated that
the LSEs reported a mean self-esteem level of 6.84 (SD 1.39), whereas
HSEs reported a mean self-esteem level of 9.56 (SD 0.76).
798 ROSS AND WILSON
feel farther from personally embarrassing events than from events
of which they were proud. We did not expect the valence of the
episodes to affect the subjective distance of acquaintancesevents.
In addition, we predicted a three-way interaction (Agent Va-
lence Self-Esteem), revealing a significant Self-Esteem Event
Valence interaction in the self but not the acquaintance conditions.
This triple interaction should show that the effect of valence was
greater for HSEs than LSEs only for personal events.
We conducted a multiple regression analysis with subjective
distance as the criterion variable. Continuous predictors were
centered. Standardized betas for each step of the regression anal-
ysis are reported in Table 3. A significant effect of number of
months at Step 1 of the analysis indicated that participants felt
more distant from the incident as the number of months increased.
The agent, valence, and self-esteem main effects were entered
simultaneously at Step 2. Only the effect of valence was signifi-
cant: Participants felt closer to proud than to embarrassing events.
A significant Valence Agent interaction entered at Step 3
revealed that the effect for valence was significant only for per-
sonal events. Participants viewed their own proud events as closer
than their embarrassing events,
.41, t(48) 3.04, p.004,
but did not make the same distinction for their acquaintances
events,
.07, t(51) 0.52, ns. Also, we examined whether
participants were particularly inclined to distance negative events,
feel close to positive events, or both by using ratings of acquain-
tancesevents as a baseline. Participants regarded events that made
them proud as slightly but nonsignificantly closer than events that
engendered pride in their acquaintances,
.19, t(51) 1.42,
p.16. A larger discrepancy was obtained for embarrassing
episodes, which felt significantly more remote when they occurred
to the participants rather than to the acquaintances,
⫽⫺.27,
t(46) 2.05, p.05.
The Valence Self-Esteem interaction indicated that HSEs felt
closer to proud than to embarrassing events,
.81, t(98) 4.51,
p.001, whereas LSEs felt equidistant from the two types of
events,
.18, t(98) 1.10, p.27. The two-way interactions
are qualified, however, by the predicted triple interaction (Agent
Valence Self-Esteem) entered at Step 4 of the analysis (see
Table 4 for means). We first examined the triple interaction by
conducting separate regression analyses for participantsand ac-
quaintancesevents. For acquaintancesevents, only number of
months since the incident predicted subjective distance,
.43,
t(53) 3.01, p.004. The more recently the event occurred, the
closer it felt. For personal events, the valence main effect and the
Valence Self-Esteem interaction were significant,
.41,
t(48) 3.04, p.004, and
.49, t(47) 2.81, p.007,
respectively. As predicted, HSEs (assessed at one standard devi-
ation above the mean) felt closer to proud than to embarrassing
personal events,
.75, t(47) 4.30, p.001. LSEs (assessed
at one standard deviation below the mean) felt equidistant from the
two types of personal episodes,
.12, t(47) 0.72, p.47.
A second, theoretically meaningful way to consider the triple
interaction is to ask whether LSEs and HSEs responded differently
to personal events than to episodes that happened to their acquain-
tances. LSEs did not. For LSEs only (assessed at one standard
deviation below the mean), the main effects of agent and valence
and the Agent Valence interaction failed to approach signifi-
cance, ts(98) 1.10, ps.27. For HSEs only (assessed at one
standard deviation above the mean), a main effect of valence,
.81, t(98) 4.51, p.001, was qualified by a Valence Agent
interaction,
⫽⫺.71, t(98) 3.20, p.002. HSEs felt closer to
proud events that happened to them rather than to their acquain-
tances,
.46, t(51) 2.58, p.013, and tended to feel farther
from embarrassing events that occurred to them rather than to their
acquaintances,
⫽⫺.36, t(46) 1.77, p.083.
Subsequent analyses revealed that liking for, closeness to, and
the type of relationship participants had with their acquaintances
qualified none of the subjective distance effects. Also, all of the
obtained effects remain statistically significant when the actual
number of months since the episodes is not controlled for in the
regression analyses.
Relation between subjective distance and calendar time. We
examined the correlations between subjective distance and calen-
dar time separately for HSEs and LSEs (on the basis of a median
split on self-esteem) and for participantsown and their acquain-
tancesevents. Unlike in Studies 1 and 2, for self events, neither
HSEsnor LSEssubjective time estimates were significantly
correlated with actual time, r(23) .01, p.97, and r(29) 0.00,
p.99, respectively. For events occurring to acquaintances, the
subjective time estimates of both HSEs and LSEs were strongly
correlated with actual time, r(22) .64, p.001, and r(33) .36,
p.05, respectively.
Table 3
Regressing Subjective Distance From Event and Ease of Recall
Onto Valence Condition, Agent, and Self-Esteem (Study 3)
Predictor
Subjective
distance Ease of recall
t
t
Step 1
No. months ago .201 2.10* .109 1.13
Step 2
Agent .083 0.87 .014 0.13
Valence .233 2.43* .165 1.66
Self-esteem .081 0.85 .030 0.30
Step 3
Valence Agent .403 2.55* .408 2.52*
Valence Self-Esteem .243 1.93.342 2.66**
Agent Self-Esteem .103 0.87 .073 0.60
Step 4
Agent Valence Self-Esteem .300 1.94†† .032 0.20
Note. df 105 at Step 1, 102 at Step 2, 99 at Step 3, and 98 at Step 4.
p.057. †† p.055. * p.05. ** p.01.
Table 4
Mean Subjective Distance Ratings by Agent, Valence, and
Self-Esteem (Study 3)
Level of self-esteem
Self Acquaintance
Proud Embarrassing Proud Embarrassing
High 49.01 114.92 81.80 82.20
Low 76.27 87.01 60.00 70.89
Note. High and low self-esteem were defined as being at least one
standard deviation above and below the mean, respectively.
799
SUBJECTIVE DISTANCE OF PAST EXPERIENCES
Ease of recall. Controlling for actual time in months, we
found that ease of recall was significantly related to subjective
distance in the self conditions, r(49) .58, p.001. Participants
reported that their own hard-to-recall events felt more distant than
their more memorable events. The relation was in the same direc-
tion but nonsignificant in the acquaintance conditions, r(52) .22,
p.11. A regression analysis paralleling that for subjective
distance was conducted on the ease of recall measure. Standard-
ized betas are presented in Table 3. A significant Valence Agent
interaction revealed that, for personal events, participants recalled
proud episodes more easily than embarrassing ones,
.43,
t(47) 3.17, p.003. Participants recalled their acquaintances
proud and embarrassing outcomes equally well,
⫽⫺.06,
t(51) 1, ns. Also, participants reported that their own proud
events were easier to recall than were their acquaintancesproud
events,
.32, t(52) 2.38, p.021. A nonsignificant trend in
the opposite direction occurred for embarrassing events,
.20, t(47) 1.48, p.15.
A significant Valence Self-Esteem interaction revealed that
HSEs (evaluated at one standard deviation above the mean) more
readily remembered proud than embarrassing events, regardless of
agent,
.68, t(98) 3.64, p.001. LSEs (evaluated at one
standard deviation below the mean) recalled proud and embarrass-
ing events equally well, regardless of agent,
.15, t(98) 1.
Unlike the measure of subjective distance, the triple interaction did
not attain statistical significance.
We also investigated whether ease of recall potentially mediated
the Valence Self-Esteem interaction on subjective distance for
participantsown events alone (Baron & Kenny, 1986). Although
the first requirement for mediation was metthat valence and
self-esteem interact to produce an effect on ease of recall, F(1,
47) 5.27, p.026the requirement that the interaction term be
correlated with the mediator was not met (r.16, p.13).
Therefore, ease of recall was not tested as a mediator of subjective
distance.
Importance of episodes. Finally, participants evaluated the
personal importance of the episodes to them, both at the time of
their occurrence and currently. The analysis (with time entered as
a repeated measures factor) revealed that participantsown events
were more important than were events that happened to the ac-
quaintance, F(1, 97) 16.77, p.001 (Ms6.66 vs. 4.81), that
proud events were more important than embarrassing ones, F(1,
97) 43.03, p.001 (Ms7.23 vs. 4.25), and that episodes
were more important at the time of their occurrence than now, F(1,
97) 76.11, p.001 (Ms6.91 vs. 4.57). These main effects
were qualified by a significant Agent Valence Time interac-
tion, F(1, 97) 9.11, p.003. For participantsown events, the
decline in importance over time was significantly less precipitous
for proud than for embarrassing episodes, F(1, 48) 8.22, p
.006 (M
difs
1.72 vs. 4.21). For events that occurred to acquain-
tances, the decline in importance was marginally greater for proud
than for embarrassing events, F(1, 52) 2.90, p.094
(M
difs
2.09 vs. 1.32). Level of self-esteem was unrelated to
participantsjudgments of the importance of the episodes.
It is conceivable that proud events were rated as more important
because they had a longer impact. The two scales on which
independent raters assessed duration of impact were aggregated for
purposes of analysis. Proud events were indeed rated as having a
longer impact than were embarrassing events (standardized
Ms0.66 and 0.71, respectively), F(1, 98) 109.21, p.001,
but controlling for codersratings of impact duration did not alter
the findings on the importance measure.
Finally, when actual temporal distance was controlled, the de-
cline in the level of importance over time was significantly related
to subjective distance for personal events, r(48) ⫽⫺.40, p.004,
but not for acquaintancesevents, r(52) ⫽⫺.17, p.23. Partic-
ipants reported feeling farther away from personal events that
declined more in importance.
Discussion
The distancing findings conceptually replicate those obtained in
the earlier studies. Although participants indicated that the embar-
rassing events actually occurred more recently than the proud
events, they reported feeling farther from personally embarrassing
episodes when calendar time was controlled. Consistent with a
self-enhancement interpretation, the valence of the events only
influenced participantsestimates of the subjective distance of
personal episodes. This effect of event valence on the subjective
distance of personal events was evident among HSEs and nonsig-
nificant among LSEs.
Temporal self-appraisal theory predicts that people maintain
positive self-regard by subjectively moving favorable pasts for-
ward and unfavorable pasts backward in time. The acquaintance
condition provided a baseline for assessing the direction of the
subjective distancing effect. When we ignore level of self-esteem,
we find that participants in general felt farther from their own than
from their acquaintancesembarrassing episodes. A parallel ten-
dency for participants to feel closer to their proud events was
nonsignificant. These results suggest that people are particularly
motivated to minimize the implications of past negative events
(Taylor, 1991). When we focus on LSEs and HSEs, however, the
picture changes somewhat. LSEs demonstrated no systematic in-
clination to differentiate the subjective distance of their own events
from their acquaintancesevents. In contrast, HSEs felt closer to
their own than to their acquaintancesproud episodes and tended
to feel more removed from their own than from their acquaintan-
cesembarrassing events. Across the three studies, temporal self-
appraisal theory is most strongly supported by the responses of
participants with high self-esteem, individuals who are more likely
to engage in self-enhancement processes (Baumeister, 1998;
Blaine & Crocker, 1993; Mussweiler et al., 2000).
It is notable that the only predictor of the subjective distance of
acquaintancesevents was actual distance in months. Sensibly,
participants reported that they felt farther away from othersex-
periences as actual distance increased. Moreover, the magnitude of
the correlations between the subjective and actual distance of
acquaintancesepisodes is considerably stronger than the compa-
rable correlations for personal events in any of the studies. Calen-
dar time appears to be the primary determinant of judgments of the
subjective distance of events that happened to other people. For
personal episodes, however, we found that valence and self-esteem
also contributed to peoples subjective distance estimates.
In the first two studies, measures of the subjective distance of
personal events were significantly, though only moderately, re-
lated to assessments of actual calendar time for both HSEs and
LSEs. In Study 3, these same correlations were nonsignificant for
personal events. The much larger sample sizes in the prior studies
800 ROSS AND WILSON
may have provided greater power to detect relatively weak
associations.
As in Study 2, a measure of recall yielded meaningful results but
cannot fully account for the subjective distance findings. Partici-
pants reported feeling closer to events that they could easily recall,
particularly when they personally experienced the episodes. For
personal events only, participants also reported that proud episodes
were easier to recall than were embarrassing ones. The parallel
between the ease of recall and subjective distance findings does
not extend to the self-esteem variable, however. HSEs reported
that proud events that had happened to both themselves and their
acquaintances were easier to recall than were embarrassing
episodes.
Finally, participantsassessments of the importance of the epi-
sodes warrant comment. For participantsown episodes, the de-
cline in importance with time was greater for embarrassing than
for flattering incidents. This differential decline could reflect a
self-enhancing tendency to deny the continuing importance of
embarrassing episodes. Such a tendency would be consistent with
Taylors (1991) hypothesis that people often minimize the impor-
tance of past negative events. The differential decline in impor-
tance could also reflect reality, however. Independent coders
judged flattering events to have a more enduring impact than
embarrassing events. Also, if the differential decline in the impor-
tance of flattering and embarrassing episodes is prompted by
self-enhancement motivation, it should be stronger among HSEs
than LSEs. It was not. We conclude that the jury is still out
regarding the basis of the differential decline in importance.
General Discussion
As predicted by temporal self-appraisal theory (Ross & Wilson,
2000; Wilson & Ross, 2001), participants in the current studies
reported feeling closer to past selves and to experiences with
favorable rather than undesirable implications for their current
self-worth. In Study 1, university students who recalled being
socially successful in their final year of high school felt closer to
their high school self than did students who recalled less social
success. In Study 2, participants felt closer to a university course
in which they had performed relatively well than to a course in
which they had performed poorly. In Study 3, participants felt
closer to a personally flattering than to an embarrassing incident.
Across the three studies, the bias in subjective distance occurred
when participantsreports of the actual temporal distance of the
earlier episodes were statistically controlled and when assignment
to negative and positive pasts was random; the bias occurred for
achievement and social outcomes and for single episodes as well
as longer term experiences. The findings attest to the robustness of
the bias in subjective distancing.
Previous research suggests that HSEs are particularly likely to
engage in cognitive strategies that serve to maintain or enhance
self-regard (Baumeister, 1998; Blaine & Crocker, 1993; Muss-
weiler et al., 2000). HSEs in the current studies consistently
reported that experiences with negative implications for their
present self-regard were more subjectively distant than were epi-
sodes with favorable implications. Just as consistently, LSEs re-
ported no significant difference in the subjective distance of pos-
itive and negative past episodes. Coupled with the effects of the
agent (personal vs. acquaintancesoutcomes) variation in Study 3,
the self-esteem results provide evidence that the motivation to
maintain high levels of self-regard plays a role in the bias in
subjective distancing.
There is no gold standard, however, for establishing unequivo-
cally that phenomena reflect motivational rather than cognitive
factors (Miller & Ross, 1975). If we can show that motivation
seems to provide a better account of the effects of a variety of
independent variables, then the argument is strengthened. The
self-esteem and agent effects in the current studies provide an
initial step in this direction. Subsequent research in which moti-
vation is manipulated in other ways, for example by priming (e.g.,
Wilson & Ross, 2000), self-affirmation (e.g., Steele et al., 1993),
or threat (e.g., McFarland & Alvaro, 2000), could provide addi-
tional evidence.
The current studies rely on participantsreports of the dates of
the target episodes to control for the actual passage of time. Could
these reports be biased in a manner that affects the subjective
distance findings? To render this possibility highly unlikely, we
chose episodes that should be easily dated in Studies 1 and 2.
University students surely know when they graduated from high
school (Study 1) and when they completed their immediately
previous academic term (Study 2). Also, participants in Study 2
reported the dates of their last academic term before they were
randomly assigned to best and worst grade conditions. It is con-
ceivable that participantsestimates of the dates of the proud and
embarrassing episodes in Study 3 were more susceptible to error.
However, we obtained no difference between the dating of per-
sonal events and the dating of acquaintancesevents. Moreover,
participants reported that embarrassing events occurred somewhat
more recently than did proud events for both themselves and their
acquaintance. If this difference reflects a retrospective dating error
rather than accurate reporting, it is a bias in the direction opposite
to that occurring on subjective time estimates. There is thus no
evidence in the current studies that participantsestimates of the
actual dates of the target events contributed to the observed bias in
subjective distance. Finally, past research indicates that people are
quite accurate at dating past personal events (Betz & Skowronski,
1997; Thompson et al., 1996).
A key assumption of the temporal self-appraisal model is that
distancing unfavorable past selves actually helps people to main-
tain self-regard. The findings from a series of recent experiments
support this contention. Individuals were experimentally induced
to feel close to or distant from successful and unsuccessful former
selves (Wilson, 2000). The impact of the past on present self-views
was moderated by perceived distance for both HSEs and LSEs.
Participants reported more favorable current self-views when they
were encouraged to feel far from former disappointments and close
to former successes. These results indicate that the distancing
patterns spontaneously demonstrated by HSEs in the current re-
search serve to maintain positive self-regard. Wilsons findings
imply that LSEs could benefit from using the same distancing
strategies as HSEs, but the present data indicate that LSEs do not
use these strategies of their own accord.
We examined rehearsal and memory quality as potential medi-
ators of the distancing bias because these variables have been
shown to affect the dating of natural events (e.g., N. R. Brown et
al., 1985). We obtained reports of frequency of thinking about the
target events in Study 2 and ease of recall in Study 3. It is
conceivable that people (especially HSEs) are motivated to avoid
801
SUBJECTIVE DISTANCE OF PAST EXPERIENCES
thinking about personally negative experiences and thereby re-
member them less clearly. As expected, participants reported feel-
ing closer to episodes that they thought about frequently and
recalled readily. Also, participants reported thinking more about
and remembering more readily episodes that have positive (i.e.,
good grades, proud events) rather than negative (i.e., poorer
grades, embarrassing events) implications for their self-regard.
Although our finding that rehearsal and ease of recall were related
to subjective distance is consistent with previous research on
dating (e.g., N. R. Brown et al., 1985; Thompson et al., 1996), the
current data suggest that these variables do not account for the
relation of self-esteem to the subjective distancing of personal
events. In Study 2, HSEs were no more likely than were LSEs to
report thinking about courses in which they had excelled and no
less likely to report ruminating about courses in which they had
performed poorly. Nevertheless, HSEs felt more removed from the
courses in which they had performed poorly. In Study 3, HSEs
more readily remembered proud than embarrassing events, regard-
less of whether the episodes happened to themselves or to their
acquaintance. In contrast, the valence of the episodes only signif-
icantly influenced HSEsreports of the subjective distance of
personal events.
Temporal self-appraisal theory does not specify any particular
mediator of the distancing bias. It suggests instead that feelings of
subjective temporal distance are sufficiently flexible that they can
be shifted on-line in response to current motivational concerns.
HSEs are motivated to dissociate themselves more from undesir-
able than from desirable past outcomes; their judgments of sub-
jective distance help them to accomplish this goal. Research on
assessments of interpersonal distance has yielded analogous find-
ings (Mussweiler et al., 2000; Tesser, 1988).
In the present studies, we operationalized the closeness variable
in terms of subjective temporal distance. Closeness may be evi-
denced by other variables that have received attention in the
psychological literature. According to William James (1890/1950),
people believe that their self has not changed when they reexpe-
rience their original emotions when thinking of past episodes.
Conversely, they feel more like different people when their emo-
tional reactions changefor example, if they are now amused
when they consider their earlier fearful reactions to public speak-
ing. It is conceivable that a feeling of temporal closeness is both a
cause and an effect of a perception of emotional identity over time.
Closeness is also likely to be linked to other measures of
association that have been studied in the context of interpersonal
comparisons, such as similarity (Festinger, 1954; Wood, 1989) and
inclusion of others in representations of the self (Aron, Aron,
Tudor, & Nelson, 1991). Relative to subjectively distant selves,
individuals are likely to regard subjectively close selves as more
similar to their present self. As well, their representations of
subjectively close and present selves may overlap. In contrast,
people may represent subjectively distant and current selves as
separate entities.
It is possible to extend our theorizing and predictions to future
as well as to past selves. We hypothesize that peoples thinking
about the future parallels their thinking about the past. Directly
relevant to the current research, future episodes that are likely to
threaten ones self-regard (e.g., an examination on which one
expects to perform poorly) may feel farther away than do equally
distant events that are likely to enhance self-regard. Furthermore,
this difference in temporal perspective should be evidenced more
strongly by HSEs than by LSEs.
According to temporal self-appraisal theory, peoples subjective
distance estimates reflect, in part, their attempts to maintain or
enhance their current self worth. This proposal might seem to
imply that biases in subjective distance are greater when individ-
uals perceive themselves as responsible (justifiably or not) for
negative or positive outcomes. A social comparison analogy sug-
gests that the effects are more general, however. For example,
spectators seek to link themselves to winning sports teams and
dissociate themselves from losing ones (e.g., Cialdini et al., 1976).
These effects occur even though the spectators are unlikely to view
themselves as responsible for either outcome. By the same token,
individuals may strive to hold on to positive past events (by
keeping them subjectively close) and discard negative past events
(by rendering them subjectively distant) to the extent that these
episodes affect their feelings about themselves. The significant
factor may not be degree of control but simply whether the event
raises or lowers a persons self worth, for whatever reason. It is
conceivable, for example, that sports fans feel closer to the victo-
ries of their favorite teams than to the teamsequally distant
defeats.
Finally, although we focus on relatively mundane past occur-
rences in the current studies, the findings may have implications
for coping with more extreme life events. People sometimes re-
spond to aversive events by perceiving personal improvement or
growth after the events occurrence (McFarland & Alvaro, 2000;
Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). Perceptions of improvement may well
be related to feelings of subjective distance from past events. It is
interesting that researchers have identified distancing as a coping
strategy (e.g., Folkman, Lazarus, Dunkel-Schetter, DeLongis, &
Gruen, 1986; Valentiner, Foa, Riggs, & Gershuny, 1996); how-
ever, they use the term not to refer to temporal distance but rather
to describe the propensity to avoid thinking about or to downplay
a negative event. All of these tendencies (including subjective
temporal distancing) are likely to be interrelated ways of coping
with aversive life events. Therapeutic techniques directly targeted
at increasing the subjective distance of a negative episode may
help individuals to deemphasize the episodes current significance
and put the experience behind them.
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Received June 18, 2001
Revision received November 15, 2001
Accepted November 27, 2001
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SUBJECTIVE DISTANCE OF PAST EXPERIENCES
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