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The Nostalgia Effect: Why We Recall the Past More Fondly Than the Present

The Nostalgia Effect: Why We Recall the Past More Fondly Than the Present
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What is the Nostalgia Effect? The Nostalgia Effect is a cognitive bias where people tend to recall the past more fondly that the present, often remembering things better than they actually were.

Most everyone likes the hashtag #TBT or #ThrowbackThursday when they see it on their Instagram, Twitter or Facebook feeds.

Usually, you’ll see old pictures of a friend in a bowl haircut, a brown-and-orange, striped-shirt and corduroy bell-bottom pants, and immediately, you get a nostalgic tingle of reminiscence. Admittedly, when those faded, sepia-toned photos enter my feed, I linger, because it gives me a good feeling, even if I don’t know the person in the pictures.

Behavioral scientists call the emotions that arise when we think of the past fondly Rosy Retrospection or the Nostalgia Effect. Why do we tend to recall the past more fondly than the present? This cognitive bias is when people see things as better than they were.

Studies examined in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology made some bold statements about nostalgia:

  • When someone was sharing nostalgic experiences, the person telling the story is always the protagonist in interactions with close others (e.g., friends) or in momentous events (e.g., weddings).
  • Nostalgic descriptions contained more expressions of positive than negative feelings and often depicted the redemption of negative life scenes by subsequent triumphs.
  • Nostalgia occurs in response to negative moods and feelings of loneliness.
  • People use nostalgia to bolster social bonds, increase positive self-regard, and generate positive feelings.

How the nostalgia effect is used to influence audiences.

How the Nostalgia Effect is used to influence audiences

This blog series aims to dive into some key cognitive biases to help writers (and marketing content creators) make decisions about how cognitive biases can influence audiences.

We will examine how a luxury brand meets its demographic segmentation by playing up to the Nostalgia Effect.

What’s the #nostalgiaeffect and how can it influence audiences? Let’s look at cognitive biases to help #marketers make decisions and impact audiences. Click To Tweet

La Vie En Rose via Chanel No. 5

There is no brand better at applying “Rosy Retrospection” into their ad campaigns than Chanel No. 5. In comparing films starring Keira Knightley, Audrey Tautou and Marilyn Monroe, one will notice that all films are filmed in some shade of pink. If there are not literal images of fuchsia, carnations, or roses in a shot, then the dresses shimmer in baby pink and amaranth.

  • In “Coco Mademoiselle” with Keira Knightley and Alberto Ammann directed by Joe Wright, Knightly is dressed in champagne-colored clothes and bathed in the same lighting. The Parisian streets are colored in a haze of pink and lavender. The soundtrack of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World,” is reinterpreted by Joss Stone, a woman, suggesting some challenge to the gender biases inherent in the ad campaign. Details, from a photographer holding a vintage camera during a photo shoot, to the retro-Vespa-like-motorbike Knightley rides through empty streets, each is an homage to a past fad, a past life, one more refined, and defined by elegance.
  • In “Train de Nuit” (Night Train), with Audrey Tautou and Travis Davenport, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Tautou runs through the historic Gare de l’Est to catch the Orient Express to Istanbul. She boards a train of bygone days, retro, circa 1930s. Its interiors made of cherry wood, are shown in hues of deep reds and golden glares, a dream state, as she travels across the continent. When she reaches Istanbul, Billy Holiday’s haunting voice singing “I’m a Fool to Want You,” becomes the soundtrack to her adventure.
  • In “Marilyn and No. 5,” bright and blinding camera flashes blur the emerging image, but slowly you see a sleeping Marilyn Monroe wrapped in white satin sheets that have a hue of pink. We begin to hear archival reel of different interviews Marilyn gave to journalists. One journalist asks: What do you wear to bed?” Marilyn’s answer: “Chanel No. 5.”

In all of these examples, Chanel No. 5 takes sophisticated women, puts them in historical context, surrounds them with exotic objects and takes all of it to next-level nostalgia — thereby creating a cloud of affiliations to its product: classic, sensual, romantic, luxurious and iconic.

If we were to create a light-hearted branding positioning statement for Chanel No 5, it might sound like this:

  • The brand is here to make you feel young, romantic, sexy and free.
  • Your demographic is likely middle-aged women ages 40-60. You are wealthy, more established in your career and likely see yourself as a person with classic taste. Maybe you are a bit of a feminist, but not too much so.
  • This brand fills the room with pheromones.
  • This brand is remembered for its ability to draw us back into a time when the world was rosy.

If behavior scientists are right about The Nostalgia Effect as a cognitive bias, on an individual level, this person is someone who might often use the phrase “in the good old days” while lamenting present-day society. In some ways, this warped perception of the past always being better, could result in a distorted view of what society has to offer now.

Why does this happen, you might ask. Scientists are learning that somewhere in the brain’s processing of memory, the events that happened during a person’s younger years, say in your 20s, seem more significant, more technicolor.

And the “reminiscence bump” coincides with greater levels of hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, being released when those memories were made. Essentially, positive emotionally charged memories gathered from ages 10-30, prove to be stickier than other memories. The more negative ones tend to fade faster.

As you watch ads, or read ad content, look to see if you can detect any hints of Nostalgia Effect in the campaign.

  • In what ways is Nostalgia Effect trying to persuade you to think about the product?
  • How might you think of ways to counter the cognitive bias? For example, if someone says, “they don’t make wholesome family sitcoms like they used to,” can we truly evaluate and separate the wholesome quality of these sitcoms from the fond memory of our childhood experiences watching them?
  • How can we see from outside our own rose-tinted perspective?

Seeing the bias and examining it helps creators see from a different perspective, and could possibly improve your efforts at mapping the customer journey, especially if those customers don’t look like you or share similar life experiences.

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About the author

Elizabeth Chey

Elizabeth Chey consults international, community-based, and small nonprofits on communications, advocacy, strategic planning and capacity building. Her passion for arts, peace building and development compels her to tell complex, intimate stories about people working for social justice. She earned her MFA from New York University and a Journalism degree from Northwestern.