The Nostalgia Delusion
The “Good Old Days” weren’t that good but that doesn’t stop us from believing things used to be better
Were things better in the past than they are now? Has there been a decline in morality? Is the world a more dangerous place now than it used to be? Are people struggling more to make ends meet?
It certainly seems that if you ask the average person these questions, they look at the past through rose colored glasses, with strong nostalgia for the good old days. Life was simpler, safer, more stable back then. Things aren’t like they used to be.
It is not just nostalgia for the past measured in decades. A recent poll showed that, for a variety of economic indicators, Americans believe things are worse today than they were in the past whether the past is three decades ago or just one year ago, despite the facts showing otherwise.
It makes sense that you might not have a good memory for what things were like three decades ago. But a year ago?
The bias towards believing things are getting worse is so strong that we will cling to our nostalgia even when the facts are clearly contradictory. When faced with facts that demonstrate that the state of the world is better now vs. “back then,” we dismiss the facts.
Facts be damned, we just believe the past was better than it was.
Whether or not we actually believe the world is going to hell in a hand basket isn’t just a quirky thing that happens to us as we get old and long for the good old days that really has no impact beyond the next generation rolling its eyes at the previous ones. Inaccurate beliefs about the state of the world have dangerous implications. Those biased beliefs drive poor policy decisions. They can swing elections. They are subject to manipulation by bad actors.
I wrote about this in June on the issue of the state of morality, “The Illusion of Moral Decline.” A majority of Americans believe the state of moral values is poor and 83% say they’re getting worse. And when you line up historical survey results, our morals must be in a seven-decade tailspin, because people in every era have believed they keep declining. (I also described new research by Adam Mastroianni and Daniel Gilbert concluding that the perceived decline is an illusion. They compiled a massive amount of survey data on individuals’ personal experiences in everyday morality and found those levels have remained stable since 1949.)
But it is not just issues of morality or the economy where people think things are getting worse. People also think child mortality and poverty are getting worse.
For example, an Ipsos global survey asked people from 26 countries, “In the last 20 years, has the child mortality rate in developing countries increased or decreased?” (People could choose between “increased,” “decreased,” and “don’t know.”) In the U.S., 26% believed it increased and 26% believed it decreased.
The survey also asked whether world poverty increased or decreased in that period. Americans’ view was even more bleak: 51% said poverty increased, and just 16% said it decreased over the last 20 years.
Are those beliefs demonstrably wrong?
Generally, yes, just as the poll on economic sentiment shows.
The Mastroianni-Gilbert study on the illusion of moral decline is pretty convincing, but you can always argue about various definitions of “morality” and the lack of statistics measuring the number of instances of moral or immoral behavior per year or across different eras.
But even for things where we can objectively measure progress, and where progress has been ENORMOUS (like child mortality rates), the erroneous belief that things are getting worse persists.
Data from OurWorldInData.org shows that child mortality has declined massively in every region of the world. Between 1950 and 2015, child mortality in Latin America fell almost tenfold, from 20% to 2.4%. Rates in Asia fell from 25% to 3.5%; Rates in Africa fell from 32% to 8%.
The decline is so astonishing that child mortality rates in Africa are now lower than the European child mortality rates were in 1950.
Even in countries where things were relatively good in 1950, they’ve improved by a lot. In Europe and North America, child mortality is now .6%, which is a sixfold decline in North America and a nearly twentyfold decline in Europe.
Yet, only 26% of Americans think those rates are improving and a whopping 26% think they are getting worse.
World-wide poverty is heading in the same direction, with the share of people living in extreme poverty declining for 200 years. And the rate of decline has been accelerating over the last 20 years.
Yet, again, 51% of respondents think poverty is getting worse and a mere 16% think it is getting better.
So what gives?
Why do people believe things used to be better in the face of clear evidence to the contrary?
Child mortality has obviously gotten a lot better, but it if you ask the average person, they don’t believe that’s the case. Why, when the data so obviously contradicts the belief, do these beliefs persist?
First, when we think about the seriousness of a problem like child mortality, we don’t naturally reference how things used to be. We think in absolutes about the current state of the world instead of benchmarking to the past, which would allow us to see progress.
When we hear that 14,000 children die in the world every day, we know that’s a tragedy in an absolute sense. But we fail to benchmark against the fact that just 30 years ago, nearly 35,000 children were dying per day. Without that benchmark, we can’t see that things are getting better.
Second, when we do think about the past, we’re more likely to focus on the good stuff and forget or minimize bad stuff. Isn’t that what nostalgia is?
Mastroianni and Gilbert refer to this as “the biased memory effect,” summarizing from numerous studies that “when people recall positive and negative events from the past, the negative events are more likely to be forgotten, more likely to be misremembered as their opposite and more likely to have lost their emotional impact.”
We think that things were simpler in past. It was a happier time to be alive. But on almost any metric, it wasn't a better time to be alive. When it comes to child mortality, you can pick any moment in the past and that moment was worse on that metric than any time since.
Nostalgia is totally real in the sense that we have an overly rosy view of what's happened in the past, not because the good old days were actually better, but because we forget the bad stuff more than we forget the good stuff.
The third lesson has to do with the distortive effects of habituation, that we just get used to things. Humans psychologically adapt to their circumstances. For most of human history (and, in some parts of the world, until a few decades ago), 25%-50% of children died before the age of five. The global child mortality rate in 1950 was around 25%.
Tragedy of that magnitude seems unimaginable and unbearable. So how did people survive it all. How did they survive the trauma?
Because when something is so commonplace, even something as awful as high child mortality rates, people get used to it.
So the next time you find your self opining on how much better things used to be, try to set those feelings aside while you seek out data that might correct your point of view. You will likely find that things are better now, relative to the past, than you thought they were. And that might not just change your mind but, also, change the decisions you would otherwise make based on those faulty beliefs.