Nostalgia can be a powerful force preventing innovation in companies.
After all, people often would rather keep the status quo than run the risk of changing something while being unsure that the change will make things better.
It also seems to imply that people often think of the past more fondly than the present, as if things were always better in the “good old days”.
Now, scientists have uncovered an unconscious bias that might explain this phenomenon.
It is known as the “Rosy Retrospective”, and shows that people judge the past as much more positive than they do the present.
People seem to remember things as more positive than they were in reality at the time they happened.
The most famous evidence comes from a 1997 experiment following how people felt about an upcoming holiday.
The researchers followed three groups of people: those about to go on a trip to Europe, those on a Thanksgiving trip, and those going on a three-week bicycle tour in California. The researchers asked people to track their feelings towards the trip before, during, directly after and a while after the trip.
In almost all cases, the results from the participants followed a similar trend:
- Before the trip, people were excited and anticipated the trip, and have a positive view of the upcoming trip
- During and directly after the trip, there was often a sense of disappointment as people recall all the things which frustrated them, such as travel delays and being tired. This is when people experience a negative view of the trip
- A while after the trip, when asked about what people remember, they recall the positive things which happened and seem to forget the things which frustrated and disappointed them. They again express a positive memory
In general, people seemed to describe the events much more positively a while after they happened, than they did while they were happening.
It seems like our brain has evolved to prefer setting memories for the positive aspects of life compared to the negative aspects. This is interesting, as we appear to also have evolved to feel negative emotions and experiences more powerfully than positive ones. However, other research from war zones has indicated that negative memories are more confused, more complex, and decay more over time than positive ones. So it seems as though positive memories last longer than negative ones.
So if you ever wonder why people resist change initiatives and want to keep the status quo, it might be because they really do believe that the past was better than it really was.
But it also means that while it may be challenging to go through a change while it is happening, in the future when you and your colleagues look back at it, you will remember it as much better than it felt at the time.
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