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The Dark Side of Nostalgia

Sunday, 26 January 2020  | Cheryl McGrath



Have you ever wondered why so many people see the past as being better than today?

Nostalgia seems to be hitting a critical mass in culture lately.

Much of it is just fun. Whether it’s 90s-themed parties, throwback shows like This Is US and Stranger Things or reboots of classic films like Star Wars or Ghostbusters, we seem to be especially obsessed with the past these days.

But there is a less benign type of nostalgia. And it’s everywhere.

It’s a so-called social nostalgia.

In a nutshell, it’s a social group idealising ‘the good old days’. More technically, social nostalgia is defined as:

… a general social condition inherent to certain social communities (groups) which are rationally and emotionally oriented towards idealizing social order of the past.

And often, it results in a social group working to recreate a bygone era. To return to a time when things were simpler.

You see it in politics, like the Trump 2016 campaign. (It’s no accident that white nationalism was mobilised by that phrase ‘Make America Great Again’.) You see it in faith communities who start longing for a return to the ‘family values’ of 50 years ago. (Let’s not forget that those values could be dominant without being heartfelt, among many other problems.) You see it in the generational divide, where we talk dismissively about each successive generation, and long for the day when we were young. (Words like ‘entitled’ and ‘tech-obsessed’ and ‘we weren’t like that’.)

And it’s a type of nostalgia that’s made appearances in politics, literature, religion and philosophy throughout the ages.

Was the past better?

Maybe. But can I argue that the past is better simply because I remember it fondly? What role might my own nostalgia – my bias – play in the opinions I form today?

Our culture has sped up significantly in the last twenty years, with technology facilitating a sense of continuous motion through the 24-hour news cycle. We are polarised, busy and constantly connected. On a personal level, that’s stressful – and it’s well documented that nostalgia can act as a coping mechanism in these times. It’s a way of harkening back to a previous era to help us feel continuity with our past and our identity. It lessens the discontinuity and lack of control that makes us anxious.

That may not sound like a big deal. But let’s not forget, nostalgia is not just remembering the past. Whether I’m remembering how much better my generation was back in the day, or my love of B*Witched in the 90s, my memories are partial and biased – even more so through the mist of time. My brain will tend to downplay the negatives and enhance the positives in a psychological phenomenon known as the fading affect bias.

When this happens on a social scale, it becomes an enterprise that distorts how we view the world. It can iron out the hard-learned lessons of history through a myopic lens. And it can idealise a time that never existed. As historian Stephanie Coontz puts it:

When nostalgia for a feeling or experience gets confused with the idea that everything was good in the old days, and all change has been bad, it makes people angry and suspicious, closing them down to new experiences …

If you’ve been on Twitter lately, this may sound familiar.

No one has to think this cultural moment is better than any other. But so many of us don’t interrogate those assumptions.

This can lead us to join movements and causes based on emotion rather than fact, and it can impact our politics and worldview.

One study cited in the New York Times describes this well. Coontz, quoted above, was interviewing a series of people who were sharing memories of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Some people – the ones who hadn’t put their memories in context – saw that time as harmonious. As a result, they were resistant to the ‘evils’ of women’s rights and civil rights, which they saw as dismantling the world they remembered.

Others, however, could acknowledge that their childhood was one part of the puzzle, not the whole. Looking back at the history of the time, they could see that their own happiness could have been built on unjust arrangements and misery for others. You need only look at some the major wars to see the frightening outcomes they can produce.

Collective nostalgia can be useful for reminding us of what we’re going to lose, of our moral centre. But it has to be paired with critical thinking and self-awareness.

As professor of psychology, neuroscience and philosophy at the University of California, Antonio Damasio, put it:

… [we] need to be alert to one reason why remembrances can be comforting: Our memories can be selective; they are great film editors, capable of glorifying some facts and suppressing others when they are inconvenient. Also, there is a tendency, across a lifetime, to re-experience memorized facts and events with a positive slant, possibly part of an adaptive but non-conscious attempt to increase one’s wellbeing.

If you love a good 90s movie after a hard week, go for it. The kind of nostalgia I’m worried about is the one that impacts our sense of social justice and compassion, and even our vote.

Everyone is entitled to their perspective on their past. But hindsight is not always 20/20.


Cheryl McGrath
is a Melbourne-based writer and editor by training, and works in content production for an online learning provider. You can follow her work at her blog, Twenty-Six Letters.


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