What Counting Crows Get Right About Memories

Somewhere on my desert island, all-time top five list of bands (s/o High Fidelity) sits Counting Crows. They released their first album, August and Everything After, in 1993 and you couldn’t turn on the radio or switch on MTV without coming across Mr. Jones, the song that put them on the map. Over the next 6 years they released three more albums, one of which was live: Recovering the Satellites, Across a Wire: Live in New York City, and This Desert Life. They’ve released more than half-a-dozen albums over the last ~20 years, but none re-create the magic of their early work.

Mr. Jones is the foundation upon which my love for Counting Crows is built. I listened to it on the drive to work earlier this week and found myself belting out the lyrics with the same vigor as when I was 12 and still learning the words. Did he say flamingo or flamenco? Yet, though it feels like a betrayal to my first love, my number one Counting Crows song is Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby, and I’m not sure it’s close. It’s an eight minute song that took eight hours to write and is filled with memorable lines. The one that sticks out the most comes about two minutes in when lead singer Adam Duritz laments, “And the price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings.”

Switching gears for a minute, I came across a study last Friday that sought to answer why the majority of people believe the world is in a state of moral decay. Survey respondents from 59 countries all around the world “believe that humans are less kind, honest, ethical and moral today than they were in the past,” and have consistently said so in surveys going all the way back to 1949: “Respondents of all sorts — young and old, liberal and conservative, white and Black — consistently agreed: The golden age of human kindness is long gone,” according to the study titled “The Illusion of Moral Decline“, by Drs. Adam Mastroianni and Daniel Gilbert

So for the last 70 years, and probably longer, though we don’t have any data to prove it, people have believed that society at large is becoming less moral, not more. Why? The authors attribute it to two “psychological phenomena”: Biased Exposure and Biased Memory.

Biased Exposure is where “people predominantly encounter and pay attention to negative information about others — mischief and misdeeds make the news and dominate our conversations.” (I imagine this is heightened by our 24-hour news cycle and social media.)

Biased Memory refers to how “the negativity of negative information fades faster than the positivity of positive information. Getting dumped, for instance, hurts in the moment, but as you rationalize, reframe and distance yourself from the memory, the sting fades. The memory of meeting your current spouse, on the other hand, probably still makes you smile.”

Combine the two–the present saturation of bad news with the persistence of positive memories from our past–and you can see why people believe things are headed you-know-where in a handbasket: “When you’re standing in a wasteland but remember a wonderland, the only reasonable conclusion is that things have gotten worse.”

Circling back to Counting Crows, Adam Duritz’s line about memories in Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby is backed up by the study’s findings, though to be fair, he’s probably singing about something a little different. I imagine he’s thinking of mistakes he’s made in the past or opportunities he didn’t take advantage of. Things that fill him with regret and sadness. These things are real, we all feel them, and it’s important to note the study isn’t attempting to diminish them.

What the study is getting at is while many of us feel a deep sense of concern for how morality has changed over the course of our lives, that’s society is getting worse, more mean, less kind, these feelings are largely a mental trick.

While there is a lot to be learned from the study, I’ll point out three things. First, concern over the state of things is natural and fearing that the world’s best days are behind us is an emotion shared by many. Yet, take heart, because the authors’ also tell us that survey respondents note no change to the morality of their contemporaries (i.e., friends). This is a curious contradiction. That those surveyed sense a loss of morality over time yet perceive no change in those closest to them indicates this is a trick our brains are playing on us.

Second, we can all benefit from limiting our exposure to news, most of which focuses on the “mischief and misdeeds” Drs. Mastroianni and Gilbert refer to. Stay informed, just keep a healthy distance.

Third, Biased Exposure and Biased Memory matter to us as investors because the sense of unease and discomfort they create can negatively influence our behavior, and improper behavior is a (maybe the) leading cause of poor investment performance. Understanding our cognitive biases may help improve outcomes, both in our finances and our lives.

So this weekend do yourself a favor and turn off the news, invite your friends over, and turn on some good music. May I suggest Counting Crows?


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Ryan Smith
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Born and raised on the North Shore of Massachusetts, I moved to Raleigh in 2011 to marry my wife, Emily. We have two kids, Jack and Gwen, a golden retriever named Olly, and are members of Church of the Apostles. I have been a Financial Advisor since 2005 and earned a Master’s of Science in Financial Planning from Bentley University in 2007. I became a CFP® professional in 2009, a Retirement Income Certified Professional® in 2015, and a Certified Tax Specialist™ in 2023.