How Do You Want to Be Remembered? - Pacific Standard

How Do You Want to Be Remembered?

New research suggests the surprising answer is "warts and all."
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(Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

(Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Dave was a loving husband, a good father, and a supportive friend. (Sniff.) He also goofed off at work, cheated on his taxes, and was a notoriously mean drunk.

Such a pronouncement at Dave's funeral would be quite a surprise. But newly published research suggests that, if it's an honest appraisal, it's pretty much what he would have wanted.

"Most people wish to be remembered as they really are," a research team led by psychologist Samantha Heintzelman of the University of Virginia writes in the Journal of Research in Personality. "Being misremembered, even positively, seems to be less appealing than being remembered authentically."

In a series of four studies, the researchers found this preference persisted regardless of one's feeling of satisfaction in life, or "the general bias of seeing oneself as good." Call it the Sinatra Syndrome: People, on the whole, desire to live an authentic life, and they want to be recognized posthumously for who they were.

"Most people wish to be remembered as they really are."

The first study featured 3,029 people—two-thirds of them university students, with the other third American adults recruited online. They were asked to imagine several scenarios, including two that take place 100 years from now.

In the first, a historian has decided to write your biography; in the second, an artist has been commissioned to create a sculpture memorializing you, to be placed in the town square. In both cases, participants were then asked how they would prefer to be portrayed, on a scale of one (more negatively than you really are) to seven (more positively than you really are).

Most came down right in the middle of the scale for both scenarios, meaning they wanted to be remembered "exactly as you are."

In another study, 461 people recruited online were asked the same question about how they wanted to be portrayed in a biography. Beforehand, one-third were asked to reflect on the personal qualities "that make you great." Another third thought about "the qualities of yourself that keep you from being great." The final third skipped this section altogether.

Once again, "exactly as you are" won out, getting the votes of 67 percent of those who thought about their positive qualities (or went straight to the main question), and 61 percent of those who had considered their flaws. In addition, those in the latter category "were not less interested in having the biography written, even if it included negative information."

The results suggests presenting oneself to the world in an accurate, warts-and-all way serves an "important existential purpose," Heintzelman and her colleagues conclude.

"Being remembered by one's social group is a way of attaining symbolic immortality," they note. But if one's essence is going to live on—in a book, a work of art, or simply in the memories of others—"it would seem crucial to be remembered accurately."

So, as long as the description is accurate, go ahead and speak ill of the dead. If they could, they'd thank you for it.

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Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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