Pining for the Past – Part II The Psychology

Welcome to part II where we delve into some of the reasons why we might feel the past was better than the present. Remember, this series of blog posts was inspired when I asked a family member whether they thought the past was better than the present. I wanted to see if this view was an isolated one or representative of a wider sample. Here is what I found.

What does everyone else think?

I ran a survey using Survey Monkey which asked three simple questions:

  • Do you think the past in New Zealand was better than it is today?
  • Do you think the past was better than it is today for the world in general?
  • Do you think things will get better in the future?

There were 106 respondents which provided a roughly 90% confidence interval for the New Zealand population. The demographic make of the sample was 38% between 25 and 39 years of age and 45% over 40 (fig. 1).

Screenshot 2019-05-04 at 8.22.41 AM

Figure 1. Age of survey respondents.

The results correlated nicely with many similar and more in depth studies that have been conducted around the world. The jury is out, 46% of respondents thought life in New Zealand was better in the past, the rest were unsure or think it is better now (fig. 2).

Screenshot 2019-05-04 at 8.16.45 AM

Figure 2. Percentage of respondents who thought life in New Zealand was better in the past.

There was more consensus among those who thought the world was not a better place now than in the past with only 36% reporting the past to be better (fig. 3). Sadly, only 35% felt the future would be better, under a third were hopeful with the remaining 35% expressing uncertainty.

Screenshot 2019-05-04 at 8.19.51 AM

Figure 3. Percentage of respondents who felt the world was better in the past.

I also asked for some of the reasons why the world and New Zealand today is not the utopia it was in the past. A common response was increased pollution, the pace of life is faster, people have to work harder, life is not so simple and technology has been detrimental to us socially. Some even feel we are heading for global political cataclysm and war, again. As I stated in part one, the exploration of a few metrics doesn’t respond to subjective views of life becoming more complicated and fast paced. But, it is worth considering the cost-benefit of progress; with the rise of technology, today we enjoy unprecedented freedom to travel and communicate and knowledge is at our fingertips. Undoubtedly, this has caused its own share of problems, but the opportunities that abound in the world today far outweigh those of the recent past. Is that enough to make the present better? What do you think?

The psychology behind our attitudes to the past

Despite all of the statistics lets face it, graphs are meaningless to the individual affected by suicide, cancer, the early death of a loved one, an excessively long time on a hospital waiting list or the loss of a favourite waterhole. But, it is not just the case that some people get the short end of the contingent stick of life, we are also the unwitting victims of our psychology, and the proverbial wool is being pulled over our eyes by, well, our own minds.

The notion of looking fondly on the past is known as the ‘reminiscence bump‘ and it increases with age. In a study of over 70 year olds, most recalled the best events of their lives occurred between the ages of 10 and 30. The years in between, the bulk of their adult lives go unmentioned. In addition, as people age they tend to mellow, exhibiting the so called ‘positivity effect‘ as negative emotions reduce. People begin to let go of old grudges and forget the hard times to reminisce on those bygone days when everything was fine and dandy. The reality though, is life was tough then for just as many reasons as it is today, albeit they are now slightly different ones. So, rather than taking an objective view of reality and the changing fortunes of humanity, we tend to bias our thinking with nostalgia for the good old days.

This speaks to the wider concept of remembering the past as being better than it really was and that the future is bleak, a cognitive bias known as declinism. The old saying, ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, can be applied here. Declinism has been a feature of society for millennia with prophesies of doom beginning in the old testament of the Bible, if not earlier. Declinism can also leverage off a general negativity bias, in contrast to the positivity effect, which suggests that people tend to hold on to negative experiences which then influence their outlook on life and the future. The danger of such thinking is that a negative outlook becomes a self fulfilling prophecy with a potential outcome clinical depression.

But our negative worldview is not entirely intrinsic, a key contributor to our pessimism is fed to us via a steady diet of bad news stories through myriad mainstream and social media channels. The media is the great purveyor of bad news and it is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a rosy disposition whilst confronted by an endless parade of Chicken Little’s.

From Trump and North Korea (update for 2019 – well played Trump, well played…), to the global war on terror, drugs, homophobia, xenophobia, meat eaters and tribalism, to cancer, suicide and climate change, its depressing just thinking about all of the ways we are being depressed. Part of the reason for this is economic; we are the victims of our rubber necking tendencies, but it is also a question of perspective. Bad news stories tend to appear suddenly, capturing our attention, positive developments on the other hand generally occur at much slower rates. When supported by the availability heuristic, we tend to remember the negative events we see more frequently and have an unbalanced and thus negative perspective of the world. It is only when taking a step back to look at the big picture that a more accurate, positive trend can be observed in almost every measure of progress we can think of.

Good things take time, bad things just happen

We can’t just ‘fix’ cancer but we are fixing it, slowly. It is taking a bloody long time and many more will die before we have it sorted but you could say that about many things; slowly but surely gifted scientists and professionals are devoting their lives to solving some of the world’s greatest problems. But short of a few breakthroughs here and there, most of which will go largely unnoticed by the general population, progress is slow and steady, the culmination of the collective research and intellect of many generations. Take Norman Borlaug for instance; who? A Nobel prize winner credited with starting the ‘green revolution’ that saved at least a billion people from starvation; who indeed. It’s all very well to feel the past was a better place, the truth is we don’t have all of the information to make such a decision, but between our subversive minds and the negatively biased information we are constantly bombarded with, it is hardly our fault.

Escape from a narrow world view

I offer another potential cognitive bias which could prop up the declinism we seem to be suffering from, the ‘small town mentality’. There is a famous kiwi anthem sung by the iconic Fred Dagg, called ‘we don’t know how lucky we are‘. It is easy to become victim of a way of thinking which is not enriched by experiences of the outside world. It is one thing to watch the evening news but quite another to experience the world directly and over time. It is a cliche to say that when I occasionally return home to ‘en zed’, that I truly realise how good we have it there. So there is a comparison to be made, between the past as we remember it in New Zealand (or where ever you grew up as the principle is pretty well universal for developed countries) and how it was elsewhere around the world. It is fair to feel that life has declined on a local level, even though it has improved for the world in general, but I hope this piece offers encouragement to not get caught up in a narrow worldview and to see the positives of human progress. Pessimism may come naturally, but so does the human ability to strive.

Fred Dagg had it about right I reckon, we really don’t know how lucky we are.

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