Duality Of Study Abroad

The first weeks of a post-abroad semester are filled with friends, acquaintances, and peripheral figures asking about one’s time spent outside of his or her homeland. These questions, prompted by genuine interest or social protocol, must be answered in the same way. As the semester deepens and the subject runs dry, talk of abroad eventually recedes into an occasional conversation piece that one might timidly reference, fully aware of the social dangers of frequenting the topic. But, for a time, in those first few weeks, one is forced to consider his or her tenure overseas. If just for the sake of responding adequately, an evaluation must be made and several memorable experiences be brought forth as evidence.

I have two distinct responses to retrospection about my experiences. The first is a gut reaction. It comes quickly, unconsciously, and without any depth of thought. Certain keywords such as “France,” “study abroad,” or anything else that may pertain to my time in Paris can trigger memories and subsequent positive reactions to those memories. Much like a reflex, the positive associations flow quickly and without any deliberate intention to call them to mind. This reaction influences my responses to questions posed in passing or to those whose interest I judge to be cursory.

The second reaction is a much more conscious and intentional consideration. Prompted either by perceived genuine interest from another or my own casual reflection, lengthy consideration produces a much more neutral, calculated response. This often leads me to perceive the experience as “useful,” and one unlikely to be highlighted in any study abroad pamphlets in the near future. Importantly, though, this response is notably different from the first.

The second reaction is closer to the mark, however. During my stay in Paris, I was fairly dedicated to conscientiously observing my experiences and regularly recording my reactions to my abroad quotidian. By the end of the semester, my notes showed that I was very ready to come home and that I had been somewhat disappointed with the time already spent. But, this remains something very unknown to my reflex response, despite having arrived at this second conclusion a multitude of times. The first reaction, positive in its outlook, has stayed.

Regarding the unusual positive recollection I have of going abroad, I turn to Terence Mitchell and Leigh Thompson, who, in “A Theory of Temporal Adjustments of the Evaluation of Events: Rosy Prospection and Rosy Retrospection,” present an empirical study of the positive tint produced by time separation from an experience. A process that positively colors experiential reevaluation, Rosy Retrospection, which they define as “the tendency for people to remember and recollect events they experience more fondly and positively than they evaluated them to be at the time of their occurrence,” leads them to propose that interpretations of past experiences are subject to selective and unconscious sampling. This mechanism is hard at work, coloring my retrospection in a manner more consistent with how I may wish to remember my few months in Paris. Further, it makes sense that the things one most readily remembers stand out the most: cafes, clubs, and other notable experiences, while memories of tedium and isolation fade from view.

Daniel Kahneman has helped me reconcile the two reactions. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman theorizes two methods of processing information. System 1 arrives at conclusions based on heuristics, but sometimes at the cost of sound rationality. System 2 is dominated by reason and analysis, but often overshadowed by System 1. I found these to be fairly consistent with my two responses, shedding light on how I might arrive at opposite reactions when trying to recollect the same experience. The reflexive response is a mixture of snap judgments of my perceptions of concepts like “abroad” or “Paris,” while the second has a pause to carefully sift through the reality of the past.

Perhaps my “rosy,” “System 1” reaction is a response to the seemingly heretical idea of having a sub-optimal abroad experience while the second, “un-tinted,” “System 2” evaluation is more capable of factoring in dissonant memories with my recollection. These ideas are obviously not unique to study abroad, but can be applied to any consideration of a remembered experience. Regarding abroad recollections, however, the natural recourse to turn to a rosier, more idealized memory narrative can problematically mischaracterize one’s experience and encourage others to do the same.

December 8, 2014