What we can learn from regret and nostalgia Why are we so often pulled into memories of the past? This week, we bring you a 2018 episode about our ruminations on what we could have done differently, and what we wish we could do again.

Looking Back: Reflecting On The Past To Understand The Present

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/810498673/810560480" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Sometimes, it can feel like the past is all we have - that memory is all that we are. It's why we always return to what we did yesterday - rehashing, revisiting - that grandparent we should have visited, that summer that lasted forever. Our personal reconstructions of the past, edited, polished and misremembered, are how we make meaning of ourselves in the present. Today, two emotions that take us back in time - regret and nostalgia - the things we wish we could return to.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's like how - where did all this time go? How do I already have a daughter that's graduated from high school?

VEDANTAM: And the things we wish we could change.

JAMES COOPER: My biggest regret is not listening to my father tell me about the mundane things that happened to him during the day.

VEDANTAM: How can we make these feelings work for us? And what can we learn from them? Looking to our past to understand our present - this week on HIDDEN BRAIN.


VEDANTAM: Whether or not you believe in them, you probably have ghosts that haunt you - not something sinister but something you just can't get rid of.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hi there, Shankar and friends.




UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I was calling about...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Old Blue Eye sang it - regrets, I've had a few. So I won't list all of them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: My boyfriend of a year and I ended our relationship.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's just looking back and thinking that I could have done better. And I didn't.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: All these things keep popping in my head - small things - maybe something I should've said differently or something I should've done differently in a particular conversation or on a particular event.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: It makes me cringe with regret and shame.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I had an affair. Everyone knows. It's not a secret. But it's a regret.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: My great regret is leaving Woodstock on Saturday morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I was an evangelical Christian at the time. And I remember my friends asking me if I thought they were going to hell. I told them that I thought they would go to hell if they did not become Christian.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And it's something that's bothered me for the last 10 years.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I am experiencing regrets on sometimes a minute-to-minute basis.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And it is the biggest regret of my life - honestly.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I hope you have a great rest of your day.



AMY SUMMERVILLE: I don't know that I have a particular deep backstory about how I got into regret. I actually was just generally interested in social psychology.

VEDANTAM: Amy Summerville is a psychology professor at Miami University of Ohio. She runs the Regret Lab where she studies how people think about the choices they made and the choices they wish they'd made.

SUMMERVILLE: One of the things that then drew me to regret from that is the fact that regret is among our most common emotions. By some estimates, it's the second most common emotion mentioned in daily life and the most common negative emotion that we mention. And so this is really a pervasive part of how people experience the world around them. And as I learned more, I really started to realize that regret is actually a very hopeful emotion. It's something that is helping us learn from our mistakes and do better in the future. So it's actually, I think, a really positive thing to get to a study.

VEDANTAM: That's so interesting, Amy, because, of course, most of us think of regret as being a negative emotion because it's painful. But what you're saying makes me think about a listener who recently shared his story of regret with us. His name is Tom Bonsaint (ph). Here's what he said.

TOM BONSAINT: I regret not taking the lead in a school play when I was in ninth grade. I was in a 9-through-12 school, and I was surprised to receive the lead as a freshman. It was somewhat of a big deal considering that freshmen typically don't get those sort of rules. And rather than accept the fact that the director felt like I would be a good choice for the role, I listened to people who said that I probably couldn't handle it and therefore decided to turn the role down.

Later on in life, I realized that when people present me with an opportunity like that, if they have the confidence in me being able to be successful, they're likely not putting me in that place to fail. And so since then, I feel like I've gotten a new confidence. And so when faced with similar situations in the current time, I've been much more likely to put my hand up and say yes.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering how common this is. Are people really good at taking what happened in the past and learning from it? What spells the difference between people who actually are behaving like Tom - taking a bad experience and saying, I'm actually going to use it - and people who just sort of stay stuck in what that bad experience was and think about it over and over again?

SUMMERVILLE: So I think the thing that really characterizes it is less about necessarily what kind of person you are but rather the way that you're experiencing these thoughts. So there's something called rumination, which actually comes literally from bovine digestion - the idea of how cows vomit back up things, chew them over, swallow them back down and so on and so forth. And in terms of our thoughts, it's actually this idea of the same kind of process - that rumination is having thoughts sort of spring unwanted to mind.

And we're chewing them over without actually getting anything new out of them. They're just repeatedly, intrusively becoming sort of part of our mental landscape. And what we've found is that people who have ruminative regrets - so that they're both having this regret but also having it be something that's intrusive and repeated - tend to be people who are also experiencing the most negative outcomes - so are more likely to have clinical depression symptoms, anxiety symptoms, things like that.

VEDANTAM: There are some regrets you can learn from, like Tom's story about trying out for the school play. But other regrets feel harder to overcome. I asked Amy Summerville about this. And I played her the story from Catherine Wigginton-Green (ph), a listener from Washington, D.C.

CATHERINE WIGGINTON-GREEN: My main regret - what popped into my mind when I heard this on the podcast - was regretting not stopping and seeing my estranged father. He'd been estranged from our family for quite a while, and I had not seen him or spoken with him in a very long time - his choice. And I was driving along Rock Creek Parkway with my boyfriend at the time, who is now my husband. And as we were driving up Rock Creek Parkway, I looked to my right and saw him and the woman he married walking arm in arm.

And I saw him, and I told my husband to pull over immediately without thinking. And when we stopped the car, I started to unbuckle my seat belt. And then I stopped and paused for a moment and realized I had no idea what I was going to do or what I was going to say. So I chickened out and buckled my seat belt back and told my husband to keep driving. And then I burst into tears. And I realized that that was probably the last time I was going to see him and that was my only chance to talk to him again. So I still regret that.

VEDANTAM: There's something really poignant about that story, Amy, because, in this case, it doesn't sound as if the regret has the potential for learning. She says that she feels that the door was closed in terms of her ability to reconnect with her father. And she comes back to this memory over and over again and just remembers it as an opportunity that was lost.

SUMMERVILLE: Yeah, certainly, in terms of the specific incidents that we regret, they do seem to be most likely things where we had this opportunity in the moment, but it's not something that we can go back and fix - because, obviously, if we could just magically turn back and fix something, then most people would do that rather than continue to regret it. What I might say is that I would imagine that one of the reasons that this does rankle for this woman is that it's about something that's important to her - it's about her family - and that perhaps this is something that she can carry forward in terms of how she handles other relationships going forward.

VEDANTAM: So I've heard people say that there are anecdotal reports that the things that people really regret are the things that they didn't do, rather than the things that they did do. Is that just anecdotal? Is not actually true - that people regret acts of omission more than acts of commission?

SUMMERVILLE: I would say there is some evidence for that. So one of the more famous studies on this thought about this in terms of something that happens over time. And what those researchers argued is that we regret things we did a lot more in the moment. So if you say something really stupid in a job interview, you're going to walk out and have that hand-to-the-forehead feeling of, oh, why did I say that? That was such a terrible thing to have said in that moment. But in the long run, we tend to have things that are kind of incomplete goals stick around in our memory as kind of a mental to-do list basically. And that - as a result, our inactions wind up getting kind of added to that mental to-do list.

So this may be something where if you ask me, you know, what could you have done instead of going to grad school, I have this whole range of possibilities. I could have been a doctor. I could have been a writer. I could have backpacked around Europe and found my passion. And if you ask me, what are the things that you did yesterday that you could undo - right? - I have a finite set of things I actually did in my life. And so over time, it may be that when we're trying to undo something bad that's happened to us, it's easy to start imagining all of the things we might have done in the past because we have a lot more of those available to us than the things we actually did.

VEDANTAM: There are times when we don't take responsibility for our actions. But at other times, we hold ourselves accountable for things that are outside our control. James Cooper (ph) of Pittsburgh, Pa., shared one of those stories with us.

COOPER: My biggest regret is not listening to my father tell me about the mundane things that happened to him during the day and instead just immediately asking for my mom when I called the house. And maybe when I talked to him, I could have picked up on some other signs too and could have maybe prevented his suicide.

VEDANTAM: You know, when I heard James' story, Amy, I wondered whether, you know, if he had spoken to his father more, would he have actually picked up on his father's mental health. And even if he had noticed, could he have actually stopped his father from committing suicide. And it seemed to me that, in this case, James might have been taking on more responsibility than was actually warranted. I mean, it's understandable, certainly, at an emotional level. But you've done some research looking at how sometimes, when it comes to regret, we take on more responsibility than we should.

SUMMERVILLE: Yeah, I think I would say exactly that. I think that this is a case of probably imagining that there is more that could have happened differently. And it's certainly the case as well that I think people often tend to focus a lot on their own actions about negative events. And it's probably important to think about the fact that you're just one agent in a much bigger framework - that his father had other friends, hopefully had doctors, had his mother and that it's not just on James to have recognized these symptoms but that there were lots of other pieces that could have played out differently - not just his own actions but a broader set of things that could have changed.

VEDANTAM: Is there a way for people to look at their regrets and say, this is the kind of regret that is actually useful and productive, and this is the kind of regret that is actually better set aside?

SUMMERVILLE: So yeah, I would say that we know that people tend to generate these what-if thoughts as a way of trying to understand their experiences and as a way of trying to bring control to things that feel uncontrollable. We don't like the idea that bad things happen with no reason and without the ability to predict them. And in the case of regret, I think it can be that, in James's case, for instance, not wanting to think about this tremendous loss as something that wasn't predictable and wasn't controllable, that it's, I think, very reassuring sometimes to try to come up with an explanation of there's a way that this could have been prevented, it could have been changed. And it feels less random and less senseless in that way.

VEDANTAM: You know, I'm fascinated by what you just said because essentially what you're saying is that the fear or the pain of having a world that seems, you know, without meaning or is unexplainable or unpredictable, that pain of that might actually be greater than the pain of taking on regrets for things that you actually maybe don't have responsibility for and experiencing personal anguish about it. That's a fascinating idea.

SUMMERVILLE: Yeah. There's been research that says one of the ways that people can get a sense of control over their circumstances is by having these thoughts about what might have been. The dark side of that, along with personal regret, is there is also work where things like victim-blaming can actually come out of these thoughts about what might have been. So if you think about a woman who attended a party and drank a drink that had been drugged and then was sexually assaulted, right, it's very easy to think about that one moment of she took this drink, and if she had been more careful then this assault might not have happened to her. And that that sort of gives us a sense of control rather than the much more complicated thing to think about undoing of, well, how could we have prevented this person who gave her this drink and who committed this crime from doing it? So yeah, these thoughts about what might have been help give us a causal structure to our world, but sometimes they're not necessarily the correct or the most useful ways of thinking about causality.

VEDANTAM: Amy, let's listen to another story. This one comes from Tanya Stock (ph) of Farmington, N.M. I'm going to play the story in two parts because I think it reveals two different sides of regret.

TANYA STOCK: One of my biggest regrets comes from something I did in the fifth grade 20 or more years ago. I remember making fun of this little girl who was a bit overweight. And me and another girl just teased her relentlessly. And I think about some of the things that I said to her and some of the ways that I treated her, and I just regret how cruel I was as a child. And now that I'm older and I work in a field where I see the effects of what bullying and meanness does to children, I am so full of regret in that. And I could ever find her again or talk to her again - because I've moved to three or four different places at this point in my life and have no idea where she is or if it even affected her. I regret the way that I treated her and can't believe that I was so cruel.

VEDANTAM: Amy, I want to talk about the role of guilt in regret. They seem closely tied, these two emotions, but I don't think they're identical. Tom Bonsaint from Arlington, Va., regretted that he didn't get the lead in his school play, but there was no guilt involved. Tanya, on the other hand, feels terrible about what she did. When you hear Tanya's story, are you hearing guilt, or are you hearing regret?

SUMMERVILLE: So listening to Tanya's story, I would say I hear both guilt and regret. And both regret and guilt are emotions that are based on a form of comparison. So regret, I'm comparing what really happened to some imagined alternative. And some of the time, that's all we feel. Right? I just imagined that something could have been better. Guilt involves an additional comparison to what has been called our personal standards, rules and goals. So what are the things that we aspire to in our behavior? And when we make a comparison that says what we really did falls short of those personal standards, rules or goals for ourselves then we're likely to feel guilt.

VEDANTAM: I want you to listen to the second part of Tanya's story. She told us that she fully realized what she had done to this other little kid only when events in her own life took a turn.

STOCK: I think karma came and got me 'cause while I was a petite little kid, as I got older and through some injuries, I became quite overweight myself and heard the comments that were said about me or how I became invisible and, like, people didn't think that my feelings mattered. The heaviest I ever was was 330 pounds, and I have worked hard and had surgery and have lost quite a bit of weight. I'm just about 195 now, but I still see myself and still have the self-confidence of a 330-pound woman. And I know how it feels, and I regret making anyone else ever feel that way.

VEDANTAM: When you listen to Tanya's story, Amy, I'm wondering do you hear sort of someone saying I really don't like the way the world has treated me? Or do you hear someone saying I realize the world has treated me really badly, and that's opened my eyes to the way that I might have treated other people in the past?

SUMMERVILLE: It sounds like in Tanya's case, she's really developed a different understanding of the world and used that to understand how her behavior may have affected other people rather than necessarily being particularly focused on feeling that she's been treated badly. And I think that, again, regret is based on this idea that we personally could have done something differently. And so in some ways it's obviously a self-focused emotion. It's about what we should have done. But I think it can also be a fairly selfless emotion and be about how we relate to the people in the world around us. What responsibility do we have towards our fellow humans?


VEDANTAM: You know, psychologists have talked for a long time about something called the fundamental attribution error, which is, how much do we believe actions of either ourselves or others are caused by things that are intrinsic to us, things that are part of who our personality is, who we are, versus things that are shaped by the context, by the situation in which we find ourselves? When someone like Tanya looks back as an adult at her behavior as a child, do you think the fundamental attribution error plays a role, in some ways leading us to believe that we are responsible for things that maybe we were not responsible for? That maybe really the context was driving our actions and behavior way back when?

SUMMERVILLE: Yeah. Absolutely. Again, I think regret is based on this sense of personal responsibility. And certainly in Western cultures, there's very much this belief that, you know, individuals are responsible for their own actions, we're responsible for our own destinies. And I think that can lead individuals to think more about how a given actor, including them self or including another person, played a role and a lot less attention to the whole context. So in Tanya's story, I believe she started by talking about how there was another little girl that she was friends with who joined with her in the bullying. And I think it may be easy to ignore the degree to which she was experiencing peer pressure. Right? There was probably a social context in which this bullying occurred, which doesn't forgive it or excuse it, but it's not necessarily just about who Tanya is as a person to have done this, but rather really a much more complicated net of things that were influencing her as well as who she was at that time.

VEDANTAM: I understand you got married about a year ago, and you applied some of your own research on regret when it came to choosing a wedding dress.

SUMMERVILLE: I did. So I actually wasn't applying my own research. I applied work by Sheena Iyengar on the phenomenon of choice overload, as well as work by Barry Schwartz and colleagues about the idea of maximizing versus satisficing as strategies for decisions. Maximizing being the idea that you want to pick the best of all possible alternatives, and satisficing being the idea that you're going to pick something that meets all of your standards but may or may not be the absolute best. So when I was wedding dress shopping, I went to a couple of stores. I tried on five or 10 dresses at each one, and I found a dress that I absolutely loved and was in my price range. And I realized that what the research told me was I would never be happier than I was at that moment, that if I kept dress shopping, I was going to wind up feeling overwhelmed. You know, I could find a hundred different lace sheaths with a V-neck in ivory, and I would wind up feeling confused about, what are the differences between these, and that the very act of trying to get the absolute best would mean that I could never really be sure if I'd done it. Whereas if I adopted a satisficing strategy, I could be sure I am in a dress that looks beautiful on me and is in my price range, and I should just buy it and be done. And so that's how I chose my wedding dress.

VEDANTAM: So for all you kids who think that research has no benefit in people's lives, that's a great example. Amy Summerville is a psychology professor at Miami University of Ohio. She runs the Regret Lab, where she studies when and why people think about what might have been. Amy, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

SUMMERVILLE: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

VEDANTAM: After the break, we'll shift gears, from looking back with remorse...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: It just really sticks with me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: I shouldn't have been so afraid. I should have been myself.

VEDANTAM: ...To looking back with nostalgia. It turns out reminiscing can have powerful psychological benefits.

CLAY ROUTLEDGE: There is a big element of nostalgia that isn't about us retreating to the past. It's about us pulling the past forward to the present.

VEDANTAM: I'm Shankar Vedantam, and you're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. This is NPR.


VEDANTAM: Welcome back to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Before the break, we examined one of the most common negative emotions in our lives, regret. That feeling of disappointment about the job we should have taken, the friend we should have called, the person we should have married. Those what-if moments that we think about over and over again. Now in this next segment, we move from thinking about the times we wish we could change to how we think about the times we wish we could revisit.


VEDANTAM: Depending on when you were born, you might have a special reaction to one of these songs.


THE RONETTES: (Singing) The night we met, I knew I needed you so.


QUEEN: (Singing) We are the champions, my friend.


SPICE GIRLS: (Singing) I wanna (ph), I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ahh (ph). If you wanna be my lover...

VEDANTAM: Chances are, at least one of those songs evoked a feeling in you, a sort of fuzzy feeling, maybe a sense of longing. Maybe a memory popped up in your mind. Most likely what you're experiencing is nostalgia. We take it for granted that nostalgia is an ordinary harmless emotion. Nobody thinks you should go to a therapist for posting a photo from your childhood with the hashtag #ThrowbackThursday or if you have a weak spot for Fruit Loops or Lucky Charms. But that's a relatively new way of thinking.

ROUTLEDGE: It started out very much as being considered a disease. And people even today - well, a lot of people will say, well, I'm not nostalgic because I think about the future.

VEDANTAM: What exactly is nostalgia? And can nostalgia help us move forward in life, or does it simply leave us stuck in the past?


VEDANTAM: Clay Routledge is a psychology professor at North Dakota State University. He's the author of "Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource."

Clay, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

ROUTLEDGE: Thank you for having me.

VEDANTAM: In your book, you describe the origin of the word nostalgia. You say that in the 17th century, a medical student noticed that Swiss soldiers fighting in the plains of Europe were experiencing a set of emotions and physical symptoms. Other physicians ran with this idea, and they thought nostalgia was a condition unique to Swiss soldiers. They believed that the endless clanging of cowbells in the Alps triggered some kind of trauma to the brain.

ROUTLEDGE: Yeah. So there was a medical student named Johannes Hofer. And he coined this term nostalgia, which he described as a cerebral disease of demonic cause that originated from continuous vibrations of animal spirits throughout the middle brain. That's basically the beginning of the term nostalgia. Of course, that doesn't mean that was the first time people ever experienced it or even noticed it. But that was really the genesis of the study of nostalgia.

VEDANTAM: So we've obviously come a long way since those early conceptions of nostalgia. And you say that some of the people who've led the way were not researchers but marketers.

ROUTLEDGE: Yeah. I mean, that's one of the things that I think is really fascinating about this story, not just of what nostalgia is but kind of the history of how people explored it is, on the one hand, in the early years of scholarship on nostalgia, as we just discussed, there was this very disease-focused model. And then fast-forward to, you know, the 1980s - which, of course, we're going from the late 1600s to the 1980s - and you see this more commercial-driven or marketing- or advertisement-focused approach to nostalgia, which of course would paint a completely different picture of nostalgia because marketers don't think that people buy products that make them miserable. They think people buy products that they enjoy and that make them happy.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD ACTOR #1: (As character) Parents love to tell about when they were kids.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD ACTOR #2: (As character) It's called nostalgia.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I had a Tonka truck

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) A mini Cabbage Patch Kid - I always loved dolls.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD ACTOR #1: (As character) A McDonald's hamburger Happy Meal will give you that nostalgic feeling.


UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: (As narrator) The summer that summers from here on will be compared to...


UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: (As narrator) ...Where memories will be forged into the sand and then hung on a wall for years to come.

ROUTLEDGE: If you give people a list of products, things like movies or music or automobiles, people tend to have a preference for the products that were popular during their youth. And so people have this natural attraction to things from their past. That's how this got started. And then, yeah, they started to look at - well, if that's true, then inducing that feeling, that connection to the past should increase favorability towards products.


VEDANTAM: He once conducted an experiment where he tried to put volunteers into different kinds of moods. Some volunteers read about cute polar bears, which was supposed to elevate their mood. Others read a neutral article about the solar system.

ROUTLEDGE: So of course, to some of us, it's kind of cool. But it's not the type of thing that gets most people, you know, super excited.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

A third group of volunteers read about the victims of a terrible tsunami. The idea was to put them in a negative mood. This last group of volunteers reported the highest levels of nostalgia.

ROUTLEDGE: Now, it's important to note that - I mean, this - it's not - this doesn't mean that negative emotions are the only thing that trigger nostalgia. In fact, we know, as the marketing researchers have done, that you can instigate nostalgia very directly with stimuli that remind people of the past, like familiar smells or sights or music. So there's this whole, like, sensory and social type of stimuli that directly triggered nostalgia. But what we found fascinating with this emotion research is that there seems to be a class of triggers that are about negative events or life experiences or emotions that appear to motivate nostalgia for more of what we'd call a compensatory reason or, you know, psychological reasons that are about regulating distress.

VEDANTAM: In other words, a psychological defense.

ROUTLEDGE: Yes, correct.

VEDANTAM: Now, you and others have found that nostalgia is extremely common - very, very widespread. But I think a lot of people don't stop to think very carefully about the details of what constitutes a nostalgic memory or a nostalgic experience. And I want to try and do that in the next couple of minutes. And I want you to actually tell me about a picture that you keep on your desk that shows you standing with your wife and two kids in front of a mural in London. Describe the photo to me, and then give me a play-by-play account of what images and memories the photograph produces in your mind.

ROUTLEDGE: Are you aware of this band Gorillaz?


ROUTLEDGE: So in London - at least when we lived there - you know, on the South Bank, they had this really cool art that - so Gorillaz is kind - they have this graphic novel-style art associated with their music. And so they had these murals that were just kind of neat. They look very, you know, animated and comic book-y (ph). And so there's this picture of us, you know, standing there in the South Bank. Our daughter must have been around 6, and our son must have been around 4 or 5. What this picture really means to me personally is here we were. It was - you know, we were poor. We didn't have really any material possessions at the time because we were in grad school, so it seemed like there was nothing to lose. And so you have this picture that, in many ways, I think encapsulates that. And that's, I think, what's so powerful, in part, about nostalgia is you have these snapshots of your life that capture these very, very rich and complex memories, these stories about yourself. And that one really, to me, is like, here we are. We've got these small kids. We moved to England. We don't know anyone there. And we're having this great adventure. And it's an adventure for my wife and I, but it's also an adventure, you know, for our kids and for the whole family.

VEDANTAM: So there are a couple of things about this memory that stand out to me, you know. And I think they're revealing about what your research and other research has shown about nostalgia. First of all, there is this bittersweet element to your memory of that day. I mean, you're recalling the fact, for example, that you were poor that, you know, you were dealing with small kids; that you didn't have any friends that you knew in London.

So there are elements of the story that someone could hear and say, this is a story of sadness and loss. But it's also, as you are telling it to me - this is also a story about a moment of family triumph, something that brought the family together. And I want you to talk about this idea that nostalgia has these two strains simultaneously, something that feels sad but something that feels triumphant and happy as well.

ROUTLEDGE: One of the things that I found very interesting about this research in nostalgia is you have these very complex emotional experiences, often involving great hardship and loss and struggle but also, as you noted, there seems to be some kind of redemptive nature to them or triumphant nature to them. In fact, some of the best nostalgic memories that we've collected were from when I was in England and we were doing this research is we had a sample of older adults. And these were older British adults who had, you know, were alive - were children, most of them, during World War II, when Germany was bombing Great Britain.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: There are 279,000 children still in London. Many are bombed out of their homes. All look tired. But they feel safe here a good hundred feet below ground. And their spirits and fortitude are simply grand.

ROUTLEDGE: And a lot of these people had these nostalgic memories about serious family upheaval - their dad being sent away to war, them being sent to the countryside because London was being bombed, you know, families being separated. And, you know, on the one hand, you could say, these are really, really, you know, bad traumatic memories. But in nearly all of these memories that people, you know, wrote about for us, they had this experience of triumph, of gratefulness, of thankfulness for these times because, on the one hand, they were tough but they also sort of stripped away all the nonsense of life and reminded them, you know, how precious it is and what's really important in terms of their family and their meaningful connections.

And so I feel like this often happens a lot in nostalgia is you really start to get at the core of what people find personally valuable and meaningful. And a lot of times, that means suffering or loss or hardship.

VEDANTAM: So I think what I'm hearing you say in some ways is that nostalgia might involve some amount of rewriting of the past. So you know, we're seeing ourselves, in some ways, as the central protagonist of this movie. We're seeing, you know, the struggles and challenges we experience but also the triumphs and the ways we overcame those challenges. And in some ways, these are - the journalist in me would say, this might be misremembering the way things actually happened.

But of course, a psychologist would say this is exactly what all human beings need to do. We need to remember the kinds of things that we went through. And we want to tell ourselves stories about the kind of people we are and how we became this way. And some rewriting of history, some recollection of the facts that suits our image of who we are today is what produces these nostalgic images.

ROUTLEDGE: To me, I see - it's almost like making a movie. You have all these memories that represent raw footage - right? - all the filming that you've done. And of course, anyone who's seen a - who's made a movie or watched a movie knows you don't go watch hundreds of hours of raw footage. That would be a horrible (laughter) movie. Right? Well, you have an editing process, a process where the director and editors and people involved with the film, you know, will sort of shape and edit the movie in a way that tells the story that they want to tell or that features the most central themes and a narrative in a meaningful way.

You know, we do that to some extent with our autobiographical memories as well. So it's not the case that we're necessarily completely fabricating memories so much as we're selecting and kind of weaving these different memories into a meaningful self-narrative that helps us make some sense of our lives and our connection to others. Now, this doesn't mean it can't go wrong or that people don't have, you know, false memories. But I think a decent portion of this is healthy recollection that's not necessarily false but does involve a certain level of, you know, massaging the raw footage, so to speak.


VEDANTAM: When we come back, I'm going to talk to Clay about the effects of nostalgia. Is it a force for good or a force for bad? And I'm going to ask him about one of the most nostalgia-invoking presidential campaigns in recent history.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will make America great again. God bless you...

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: Welcome back to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Why are we so mesmerized by the touchstones of our youth? Just look at all the outpouring of glee around reboots of TV shows like "The X-Files"...


DAVID DUCHOVNY: (As Agent Fox Mulder) I think those kids have been abducted.

GILLIAN ANDERSON: (As Agent Dana Scully) By who?

DUCHOVNY: (As Agent Fox Mulder) By what.

VEDANTAM: ..."Twin Peaks"...


KYLE MACLACHLAN: (As Special Agent Dale Cooper) This is a damn fine cup of coffee.

VEDANTAM: ...And "Queer Eye."


JONATHAN VAN NESS: You spray, delay, and walk away.

VEDANTAM: Today we're thinking about the power of nostalgia and why the act of reminiscing can help us search for meaning and rewrite the stories of our lives. Believe it or not, tapping into treasured memories hasn't always been considered a great idea. When Johannes Hofer came up with the word nostalgia, more than 300 years ago, he thought of it as a brain disease essentially caused by demons. More recently, psychology professor Clay Routledge has found nostalgia may actually be good for us.

ROUTLEDGE: Yes. If you look within, you know, what we would refer to as normal populations - so these are research participants that don't have any particular vulnerability that might distinguish, you know, the way they recollect on the past - what you find is nostalgia seems to be generally a net positive experience that has a whole host of psychological benefits.

VEDANTAM: I suppose it's possible for people to argue, you know, if you spend excessive amounts of time ruminating about the past and living in the past, this could also be bad for you. I mean, isn't it possible that people who are spending huge amounts of time in the past - in some ways, I think your research and other people's research is suggesting. If distress causes people to become nostalgic, then people who are excessively nostalgic, could they not be people who are experiencing high levels of distress?

ROUTLEDGE: Yes. I mean, in fact, we find that characteristics like loneliness - so loneliness, which we all experience from time to time. But it's also a trait. Like, some people tend to be more lonely than others - are associated with nostalgia, as is neuroticism. So these negative emotional traits tend to be associated with nostalgia. But there's also a reason to suspect that these experiences of nostalgia are helping people restore some sense of psychological well-being while people are experiencing these emotions.

VEDANTAM: Besides being an expert on nostalgia, Clay, you've spent a lot of time advocating for greater ideological diversity in the social sciences. You've made the case that more conservative voices need to be part of the conversation. I'd like to try and connect these two parts of your life - the researcher who studies nostalgia, on the one hand, and the person who's interested in conservative thought, on the other hand. And I want to do it by talking about the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Lots of presidential campaigns talk about the future. They talk about how change is coming, about hope for the future. But Donald Trump very specifically turned his attention toward the past. He evoked a sense of nostalgia among followers. And he communicated the idea that America had seen brighter days. And both he and his followers felt that they wanted to make America great again. I'm wondering whether the signs of nostalgia has any insights into the appeal of Donald Trump and the success of his presidential campaign.

ROUTLEDGE: Well, I think one thing that's important to distinguish is the difference between what we might call personal nostalgia and historical - or what some people call collective nostalgia. Now, a lot of the work that I've done - or nearly all the work I've done and pretty much everything we've talked about thus far is about this idea of personal nostalgia, which is us revisiting memories from our own past, our own childhood or youth or whenever. Like, these are our personal memories. And that seems to be distinct from this more historical nostalgia, which you can imagine having nostalgic feelings for a period of time or for an idea that you never actually had any direct contact with.

So there are people - you know, to step outside of politics for just a second - there are people that have nostalgia for the 1920s. They just think everything about - from the architecture to the fashion - that everything's great. And, you know, they never lived in that time. And so they can't really trace it to a personal or autobiographical experience. And so I think that's important. What Trump seems to have done, either by design or by just stumbling onto it, was really latch on to this idea of historic nostalgia - that there's some kind of collective feeling of nostalgia that's beyond any individual experience that is about a time that perhaps was, at least for some - they, you know, in their mind, imagine that was better. Now, of course, that doesn't mean that it was. What matters is that, you know, he sold the idea.


TRUMP: I have to say. When I was young in high school and college, everybody used to say, we never lost a war. We never lost a war. You remember.


TRUMP: You know what I hate? There's a guy totally disruptive - throwing punches. We're not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know, what they used to do to guys like that when they were at a place like this? They'd be carried out on a stretcher, folks.


ROUTLEDGE: You know, I'd also add that it's not specific to Trump. That's, you know, clearly the most recent example from our culture. But there is actually, you know, people that have looked into Soviet-era nostalgia - that there are people in Eastern Europe and Russia that have nostalgia for the Soviet Union even if they were, you know, too young to really fully understand what was going on that time. So this idea of historical nostalgia is definitely its own kind of beast. And I don't feel like, as far as the science of it, we really have a full handle on it yet.

VEDANTAM: So obviously, it's much harder to study collective nostalgia and shared nostalgia than it is to study individual nostalgia. You know, you can't bring countries into your lab and evaluate, you know, millions of people. But is it possible that at a collective level nostalgia performs the same function that it does at an individual level?

ROUTLEDGE: Yeah, I think that's a reasonable hypothesis. For example, you know, people have noted that - like at the time of the - you know, following the economic recession in the United States, you saw this peak kind of interest in nostalgia products whether it was you know, reboot of movies or - you know, or those types of - you know, those types of cultural consumption products. Now, these aren't experiments of course, and they're not even really, you know, scientific. They're - in the sense that no one tried to systematically study this. But there was, you know, some acknowledgement that it seems like in times of collective upheaval, just like times of personal upheaval, people seem to turn more to nostalgic feelings. So I think that, you know, that's certainly a reasonable possibility.

VEDANTAM: We talked earlier in our conversations about how our recollections of our past might not necessarily be fabrications, but they are selective edits in some ways of our history. So, you know, you have that photograph on your desk of you standing with your family in front of the London mural. And, you know, you remember the good parts of that history and your story. You know, you don't necessarily remember that maybe that morning maybe you weren't the best dad that you could have been. Maybe you were impatient or you were short-tempered.

I mean, you don't remember that part of it. You remember just the fact that you were facing a challenge with your family and, you know, you were on a big adventure. And I'm wondering, is the same thing possibly true at a collective level as well, which is, you know, we have these nostalgic memories - but is it possible there's an element of them that really is insidious, especially at a cultural level?

When you see the debate over Confederate memorials, for example, and the nostalgia that people feel over Confederate memorials, many people will say, this is tradition and this is nostalgia. And there are equally many people on the other side who say, you're remembering a history that essentially has whitewashed, you know, the issue of slavery or the issue of race relationships from that memory and replaced it with this relatively grand and benign idea of tradition. How would you respond to that?

ROUTLEDGE: Yeah. I think that's a fair point even with the example of personal nostalgia. Nostalgia can be a source of inspiration and a stabilizing force as well. But you shouldn't let it blind you, or it shouldn't be the only dimension through which you think about these issues 'cause you're absolutely right. It's part of our psychological immune system to, you know, more easily forget the negative features of the past either through this sort of revisionist process that you mentioned or even through just natural recollection. I mean, a lot of negative memories fade from, you know, our awareness faster than positive memories.

And this seems to be adaptive for us personally moving forward in life, but it also biases us towards, you know, not necessarily doing a good job of thinking about the complexities of the whole picture and thinking about other people's experiences which may be, given the Confederate example, vastly different than our own. And so I do think that though nostalgia certainly has a number of positive benefits - that we shouldn't let ourselves be intoxicated by nostalgia because there are some real dangers associated with that.


VEDANTAM: Clay and I wrapped up our conversation by talking about what he said was the most surprising finding about nostalgia.

ROUTLEDGE: Nostalgia seems to actually orient people towards the future. And so part of what seems to be going on is you experience some kind of distress which kind of makes you shrink a little bit from pursuing goals and from the future. Like, it does kick you into more of this defensive mode. And then you bring to mind these nostalgic experiences that - they don't only make you feel good, we now have evidence that they actually make you feel optimistic and hopeful about the future.

And so that in turn seems to mobilize people particularly in the social domain. And now we have, you know, a number of studies that show this both in terms of people reporting that they're more optimistic about the future, more inspired, but also behaviorally, too, in terms of people actually going out and wanting to interact with and meet people after they've engaged in nostalgia.

VEDANTAM: So at one level, actually, this is surprising. But as you're talking just now, I realize this also makes perfect sense. I mean, people are nostalgic in every culture and as far as we can tell have always - you know, all historical reports suggest that nostalgia is very widespread. And when you see something that's as widespread as nostalgia seems to be, it's reasonable to draw the conclusion this is performing some kind of adaptive function and not just helping people feel better but in actually being able to function better.

ROUTLEDGE: Nostalgia has had this - historically had the stigma as we talked about - it started out very much as being considered a disease. And people even today - a lot of people will say, well, I'm not nostalgic because I think about the future. You know, I'm not the type of person that likes to fixate or get stuck in the past. And I think what they're missing when they say that is there is a big element of nostalgia that isn't about us retreating to the past. It's about us pulling the past forward to the present and using it to mobilize us, to energize us to take on new challenges and opportunities.

VEDANTAM: Clay Routledge is a psychology professor at North Dakota State University. He's the author of "Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource." Clay, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

ROUTLEDGE: Thank you for having me.


VEDANTAM: This episode was produced by Rhaina Cohen and Laura Kwerel and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu, Cat Schuknecht and Lushik Wahba. For mode HIDDEN BRAIN, please follow us on Facebook and Twitter and listen to my stories on your local public radio station. I'm Shankar Vedantam. And this is NPR.


Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.