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Those good old days and the power of nostalgia

Tenu kala chasma jachda hai. Super Mario. Paper Boat drinks. Choker necklaces. Pokémon GO. La La LandGilmore Girls. Throwback Thursday. Facebook Memories. Unprecedented endorsement for “Back to the glory days”. 

It is undeniable that 2016 celebrated nostalgia in all its fervour and for good reason. We may not yet have the ability to physically travel through time, but mental time travel to the good old days is a rather cheap and effective way to feel better when we are unsure, uncertain, and uncomfortable. Last year certainly was not short of opportunities to make one feel that way. 

Extant research in psychology shows that when people feel anxious, overwhelmed, or challenged in life, they use happy memories to anchor themselves.

As psychologist Clay Routledge mentions in his book, Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource, we look at the past nostalgically to “right the ship”. Not surprisingly, research shows that feeling nostalgic inspires, galvanizes and motivates us to live life to its fullest. 

A deeply personal feeling, this sentimental longing for the past, can strengthen the bond with the present and make one feel more optimistic about the future.

In his fascinating book, Yearning for Yesterday, sociologist Fred Davis shares an interesting analogy for nostalgia, a nearly universal phenomenon. He likens it with a credit history check when applying for a bank loan. If the past is good—i.e., the bank account is in credit—then the future is promising.

Apart from buffering against existential threats and mobilizing personal goal progress, research shows that an incidental trip down memory lane can produce some intriguing (side) effects. 

Take my money

Tugging at the heartstrings is a surefire way of getting consumers to loosen their purse strings. It is not surprising that reconnecting with fond memories from the past make us feel good. 

The treasured childhood memories of Maggi noodles and Dairy Milk chocolates make us all too willing to look past most transgressions. Even with sky-high expectations, blasts from the past often go on to become blockbusters

Research shows that the effectiveness of nostalgia in making us buy more comes from its ability to weaken the desire for money. A 2014 paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that when made to feel nostalgic, people were willing to pay more for products and displayed reduced price sensitivity. 

Time travelling to personally treasured experiences makes us pine for those days—and to hold on to anything that helps prolong and savor the moment. 

No wonder then that Paper Boat can’t make enough of the thandai variant for Holi or the sharbat for Eid. In fact, ever since they announced that they are working on a kanji variant, my family in Delhi is on high alert. 

Another brand that nailed nostalgia marketing recently is Clinique. Their latest limited edition Chubby Sticks in collaboration with Crayola bring back all the memories of faking lipstick with a crayon. 

It’s alright. Take your time.

Tapping into fond memories is a powerful emotional hook in the marketers’ toolbox, and not just for making you part with hard-earned money. Turns out that remembering the past can make people more patient. 

A recent research article published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that when made to feel nostalgic, people were more amenable to waiting. The effect is driven by the desire to relish the experience that induces the feelings of nostalgia. 

In a fascinating field study, researchers approached 90 patrons who had been waiting for 10 to 20 minutes at a restaurant in Singapore and requested them to participate in a student survey. 

Those who agreed were given a folder containing the questionnaire on the right side and a piece of paper on the left. Some of the diners had the phrase “Nostalgia – Memories of our good old days”, written on the paper on the left while the others had blank sheets. 

Apart from other details, the survey asked the diners to estimate how long they had been waiting to be seated. Results showed that those who were exposed to the “nostalgia message” estimated their wait times to be significantly shorter. 

An invaluable tactic indeed, to help alleviate the negative feelings induced by long waits at popular (or even not so popular) dining establishments, salons and banks. 

Let me help you

Intuitively, the most common theme of nostalgia narratives is relationships. It is a social emotion that fosters a feeling of connectedness—whether with objects or with people. Reminiscing about the days gone by highlights the value of belongingness and puts people at the center of the narrative. 

Calling nostalgia “the gift that keeps on giving”, a 2012 paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that this feeling of relatedness makes us more prosocial. 

Across multiple studies, making people feel nostalgic heightened empathy and increased the willingness to volunteer both time and money for relevant causes.

Even more broadly, nostalgia is known to inspire people to be more helpful. As part of an experimental psychology study, a research assistant walked into a room and accidentally dropped a box full of pencils on the floor. 

In a thought-provoking twist, participants who were made to feel nostalgic prior to this “accident” picked up a lot more pencils than those who did not feel nostalgic.

Whether it’s about being more optimistic, motivated, patient or even less money-minded, the case for nostalgia, both personal and marketing driven, is compelling. 

In short, thinking about the good old days makes us feel better and do good. As life becomes more hectic and unpredictable, the star of nostalgia is set to shine even brighter. 

Shilpa Madan is a consumer psychologist in training at the Nanyang Business School, Singapore. Her research explores the myriad facets of the pursuit happiness and well-being. In her previous life, she has worked with Unilever in marketing and sales, in Singapore and India, across home and personal care.

Her Twitter handle is @Shilpa_Madan

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