Nostalgia is a powerful sentiment. It allows us to remember the experiences we had in the past, and to look on them fondly. Nostalgia is beautiful, it is often bittersweet, and it is an incredible thing. Nostalgia also lies.
The effect of “rosy retrospection” is something that has been noted for a long time: we look back on positive things that have happened and we idealize or distort the past in the process.
This is part of a host of other cognitive biases that humans use on a regular basis — we over-generalize and oversimplify, we project our own thoughts onto others and onto the past and future, and we edit our memories after the events have happened. These cognitive biases are not inherently negative — they help us make quicker decisions, help us remember what we believe is salient and disregard information that is less crucial to us. We apply meaning to things that do not inherently have meaning and we are drawn to specific details and patterns so we can better understand the world around us.
Where cognitive biases hang us up is when we depend on them too heavily and are less aware than we should be that they exist. Rosy retrospection is one such place — in general, it does not hurt us to be nostalgic. However, when we conflate our nostalgia with fact and allow ourselves to be run only by what we feel, we get into trouble. The concept of “the good old days” can influence us to make judgements that are not based in reality. Whether that is talking about moral depravity, violence, or interpersonal interaction, we often believe that things are only getting worse. Until we verify our beliefs — through facts, not only anecdotes and feelings — about the quality of our world, we are likely missing crucial things.
Steven Pinker made headlines in 2011 for his research showing that we are living in a time of fewer deaths and less armed conflict than ever before. Pinker attributes this to humanity getting morally better. I would tend to disagree, but it is important to note that despite our increased awareness of violence through greater access to information, just because we feel like things are worse does not mean they are.
Hans Rosling did a terrific TedTalk in 2010 on this topic, on showing how different our beliefs about the world are from what is actually going on. He discussed how the global poverty rate is continuing to decline, infant mortality is at an all-time historical low, and life expectancy is significantly increased. Overall, fewer people are dying from lack of resources and the distriution between the richest and poorest in the world is levelling.
Closer to home: We constantly hear how the current young adult generation is the stupidest, most amoral, laziest generation that there has been in recent history. Generationalism is a flawed way of viewing the world — it overgeneralizes impact of birth years and minimizes other aspects and experiences that are more impactful, like culture, religion, or education. Generational arguments are reductive, and much of the research they claim to be based in is contradictory or much more complex than they let on.
“Technology is bad; it is destroying our minds and our abilities to relate with each other. Music is less meaningful now. Modern dating is killing romance. People are getting worse.” I beg to differ.
People have always riffed on the evils of technology. In the 1500s, respected scientist Conrad Gessner warned about the dangers from the extent of information the printing press would make available. Society has been warned about the dangers of radio, television, email, social media, smartphones, and on and on and on. Socrates even warned against writing because it would kill our ability to remember. As for music, Mozart wrote, “Leck mich im Arsch.” Look it up.
We prefer things that are familiar and simple, so change and nuance are difficult. Our experiences are complex, and there are positive and negative aspects of everything. The concept that “things were better then” all too often misses things like civil rights. It misses gender equality. It forgets all of the pain and suffering that people were subject to by relying on trite oversimplifications, cherry-picked examples, and stereotypes.
I am not making the argument that everything is good now, but that we should commit to actually verifying these gut feelings we have before pawning them off as The Way Things Are.