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In Conversation: The Pull of the Past with Professor Krystine Batcho

March 10, 2021 • Sam Grabel

The following is an excerpt of a conversation between History Factory President Jason Dressel, host of the History Factory Plugged In podcast, and Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, who has studied the concept of nostalgia.

The following is an excerpt of a conversation between History Factory President Jason Dressel, host of the History Factory Plugged In podcast, and Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, who has studied the concept of nostalgia.

Jason Dressel: Nostalgia has always felt like a vague, kind of ambiguous thing to me. So what exactly is nostalgia?

Krystine Batcho: It was rather surprising to me that the word “nostalgia” was an invented word. It was coined in 1688 by a French physician named Hofer, who was looking at data from military troops away from home to fight wars. He discovered that some of the soldiers would become so homesick that they, in fact, became physically ill and in rare cases would even die. So he coined the word using two Greek derivations, translated loosely to the pain or the suffering of longing for home. In Hofer’s original definition, “nostalgia” was actually a label for a medical disease, which could be fatal. Over time, the definition of nostalgia broadened to include much more than just homesickness and took on the stronger inner core of meaning, yearning for, or longing for, the past.

JD: I’m curious what you may have found in your research that triggers people to potentially have that nostalgia for a past that that precedes their own life and the distinction between that kind of nostalgia and personal nostalgia, where people are reminiscing about their own personal experiences, family, friends, places, etc.

KB: What I discovered is that people who tend to be historical nostalgic have some degree of dissatisfaction with the way things are in their present day. And it can be almost anything. It could be that they just don’t care for the cultural customs of our time or the politics of our time or anything, really, so that it’s tinged with some of the characteristics that you and I might call cynicism or pessimism. And the other part of it, which is much more positive and uplifting, is this ability to paint the past with a romantic, rosy glow so that they are looking to the past to provide improvements over the present. And as is often the case, when we look from a long distance, something looks terrific. And the closer you get to it, it doesn’t look as beautiful anymore. That is very different from personal nostalgia.

What I discovered is that people who are prone to personal nostalgia are not necessarily dissatisfied with the present at all. In fact, they’re often people who are well put together in terms of psychological well-being. So there is no correlation between people being personally nostalgic and being something like sad or depressed or any of those negative connotations. Very different phenomena.

JD: What is the concept of anticipatory nostalgia?

KB: It is my more recent focus of research. Nostalgia is this odd, bittersweet blend of good emotion and bad emotion. That’s what fascinated me in the first place. How can you feel happy and sad simultaneously? The more I looked at that, I realized it’s a little bit like trying to catch a butterfly in motion: If you catch it on your film with a still frame, when the wings are up, the shape of the butterfly is so different than if the wings are spread. And that led me to think about nostalgia as an emotion that unfolds just as the butterfly’s wings do. So, the further you get away from something, the feelings that you have emotionally can change.

So now if you incorporate that as saying, we can’t talk about nostalgia unless we talk about it being a dynamic experience across time, that led me to ask about if you’re anticipating being nostalgic in the future. I’m not saying that you’re predicting “Oh, I’m going to be nostalgic one day,” but that you are now currently feeling that bittersweet nostalgia for something you still have. But you know you’re not going to have it forever. And some of the really easy concrete examples are the parent who watches their little toddler toddle across the living room and thinking, “Wow, this is so precious.” And yet it tugs at their heart and they say, “I’m going to really miss this.”

On the other hand, what about when you’re in a difficult set of circumstances, like you’re caring for an elderly relative who might be in hospice or struggling with a debilitating disorder? And now times are tough and they’re stressful and they’re difficult, would you be inclined to feel anticipatory nostalgia there? And in fact, my data suggests that you do.

JD: What’s your take on companies and brands who are seeking to evoke nostalgia?

KB: I think I’ve noticed it growing, especially because of certain restrictions due to the pandemic. I see it overall when done well as being a positive thing. I would rather watch a commercial that has a nostalgic theme to it, whether or not I’m going to purchase the product, than watching a commercial that doesn’t interest me or has no redeeming quality. And one of the reasons I feel this way is because all of my data over the years suggests that, by and large, nostalgia benefits people, not just the individual, but society. If we could all be more nostalgic, I think we would have less rancor, less conflict, because nostalgia promotes prosocial emotions, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, tolerance, appreciation for difference. Nostalgia is a very healing emotion. So when marketers do it right, I think it has a positive benefit above and beyond whether they manage to sell their product or get a profit margin. But nostalgia is not easy to do well in marketing.

JD: What does nostalgia marketing, poorly executed, look like to you?

KB: If it takes the tack of just old things put together, for instance, a company might just repackage their food or whatever in its original package, whether it’s salt or hamburgers or anything. And to be honest, if it depends upon the generation, a millennial might not even recognize that that’s nostalgic packaging because they weren’t alive when it originally existed. So to some extent, it can be superficial — maybe not harmful, but just not particularly evocative of nostalgia.

I think it’s also clear to say that it depends upon what the product is. Let’s use the example of an automobile or tech like a smartphone. People think of technology and those kinds of products as “newer is better” because we associate newer with improved. So if you try to say, “Here’s what your old cell phone was; do you want it back again?” most people would say, “No, thank you. I love my new iPhone.” One of the keys is to bring in what is it about nostalgia, which is at the heart of its beneficial impact: It’s a social emotion.

Subaru, I believe, did a commercial for a number of years where they had a father reminiscing. And you can tell that because they showed the images — he was remembering his teenage daughter as she grew and went to prom, etc. That is a perfect example of nostalgic advertising that works great because who would not love that ad?

To listen to the entire interview, click here or listen in the player below.

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