Flowery stories and photos from the past can conjure memories into our memory that are not at all true. Psychologist Julia Shaw explains how the transfiguration of the past works.
In recent weeks and months, international politics has given us a lot of trouble. First the British vote for the Brexit, then the Americans choose Trump as president. A rather negligible aspect of these developments is the rhetoric of the right: their tendency to nostalgia, the transfiguration of the past. Whether “Brexiteers”, Trump-Supporters or AfD-members, they all tell us again and again that everything was better before.
This does not only happen in political circles, the trend has been known in fashion or music for a long time. In Berlin and London, retro-record players are almost killed, the fashion world is rediscovered in the nineties, and the Ostalgie, also known as a traffic light industry, continues to flourish in designer circles. The business world benefits every day from our longing for yesterday.
But why do we long for the past? There are two psychological phenomena that mislead us here.
Rosy look back
Most people suffer from a “Rosige-past” distortion. This simply means that we would like to think afterwards that our experiences were more interesting than they really were.
In a series of studies by Terence Mitchell and colleagues in the US, it was already shown at the end of the last century that people were over-estimating how much they had enjoyed at their Europareise, their three-week bicycle trip through California or celebrating the Erntedankfest.
The researchers documented that the test subjects often had negative emotions during their experiences – because they were distracted, disappointed or plagued by self-doubt. Only a few days later, however, these emotions were completely forgotten.
If, however, we forget the bad, and keep the good in our best memory, the longing for the supposedly great past follows almost logically. A longing, which is exploited by politicians and marketing professionals.
Nostalgia-playing commercials and election campaign slogans, which promise a return to the “good old days”, still further strengthen our tendency towards the past. Reminders are “chopped” – and this also has a direct impact on our behavior. How and who is elected and how and for what we spend money.
If you are over 40, you need to be more careful with nostalgia effects. According to the researchers Jonathan Koppel and David Rubin, the so-called reminiscence Bump is “one of the most robust results in autobiographical memory research”. It is the fact that the vast majority of people over 40 have more memories of their youth and early adulthood than for the time after.
But why is it like that? A guess is simply that these years of life between 15 and 25 are particularly formative. According to scientists such as Clare Rathbone and her colleagues from England, it is possible that we remember much better this time, because at this age we have developed and established our identity as adults.
Faulty emotional memory
We experienced a lot for the first time, which later on belongs to the adulthood: the first job, the first kiss, the first choice. These defining events are deeply rooted in the brain.
This also means that the affinity for nostalgia and thus false memories of the past increases with age. Distortions and transitions become more and more likely. At the same time, we do not usually notice how faulty our emotional memory works and therefore have an excessive self-confidence in the reliability of our memories.
We mean to know how great the past was and complain about what the young generation does today. And if young people, for example, point to statistics that clearly show that mankind is better today than ever before, they get to hear from the nostalgics: “Have you been there ?!”