That there was a golden age.
NY Times, Adam Mastroianni, 20 Jun 2023: Your Brain Has Tricked You Into Thinking Everything Is Worse
Perhaps no political promise is more potent or universal than the vow to restore a golden age. From Caesar Augustus to the Medicis and Adolf Hitler, from President Xi Jinping of China and President “Bongbong” Marcos of the Philippines to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Joe Biden’s “America Is Back,” leaders have gained power by vowing a return to the good old days.
What these political myths have in common is an understanding that the golden age is definitely not right now. Maybe we’ve been changing from angels into demons for centuries, and people have only now noticed the horns sprouting on their neighbors’ foreheads.
But I believe there’s a bug — a set of cognitive biases — in people’s brains that causes them to perceive a fall from grace even when it hasn’t happened. I and my colleague Daniel Gilbert at Harvard have found evidence for that bug, which we recently published in the journal Nature. While previous researchers have theorized about why people might believe things have gotten worse, we are the first to investigate this belief all over the world, to test its veracity and to explain where it comes from.
The writer here is an experimental psychologist and the author of the science blog Experimental History, which happens to have this long post on the same topic, from the perspective of the perception of declining morality. Back to the NYT piece:
The writer and his collaborator Daniel Gilbert (whom I’ve reviewed) collected 235 surveys that showed people believe “that humans are less kind, honest, ethical and moral today than they were in the past” along with “strong evidence that people are wrong about this decline.”
Why do people believe this? Again, as with so much else, psychological biases that are advantageous for survival (in ancestral environments) but which lead humans to believe things about the world that are not true.
Two well-established psychological phenomena could combine to produce this illusion of moral decline. First, there’s biased exposure: People predominantly encounter and pay attention to negative information about others — mischief and misdeeds make the news and dominate our conversations.
Second, there’s biased memory: The negativity of negative information fades faster than the positivity of positive information. Getting dumped, for instance, hurts in the moment, but as you rationalize, reframe and distance yourself from the memory, the sting fades. The memory of meeting your current spouse, on the other hand, probably still makes you smile.
When you put these two cognitive mechanisms together, you can create an illusion of decline. Thanks to biased exposure, things look bad every day. But thanks to biased memory, when you think back to yesterday, you don’t remember things being so bad. When you’re standing in a wasteland but remember a wonderland, the only reasonable conclusion is that things have gotten worse.
But why would these biases exist to give so many people this impression of a golden past? Because that impression is an illusion caused by cognitive mechanisms that operate on smaller scales.
That explanation fits well with two more of our surprising findings. First, people exempt their own social circles from decline; in fact, they think the people they know are nicer than ever. This might be because people primarily encounter positive information about people they know, which our model predicts can create an illusion of improvement.
Second, people believe that moral decline began only after they arrived on Earth; they see humanity as stably virtuous in the decades before their birth. This especially suggests that biased memory plays a role in producing the illusion.
If these cognitive biases are working in tandem, our susceptibility to golden age myths makes a lot more sense. Our biased attention means we’ll always feel we’re living in dark times, and our biased memory means we’ll always think the past was brighter.
Note the first point. The writer doesn’t say it, but I will: there’s an element of tribalism here, thinking well of those close to us, and suspicious of outsiders; and the biases promulgated by of the modern news media (even the best of them), that highlights bad things that happen, mostly of course to other people. Conclusion:
Seventy-six percent of Americans believe, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll, that “addressing the moral breakdown of the country” should be one of the government’s priorities. The good news is that the breakdown hasn’t happened. The bad news is that people believe it has.
As long as we believe in this illusion, we are susceptible to the promises of aspiring autocrats who claim they can return us to a golden age that exists in the only place a golden age has ever existed: our imaginations.
Mastroianni’s blog post is longer and more casual, with charts and graphs showing trends in the data he’s drawn his conclusions from. Also, an earlier post of his refers to ‘Norman Doors,’ which I mentioned in this post from 12 days ago, without knowing that term. Coincidence!
Is it a coincidence that another major paper has posted an essay on such a similar subject? Probably so. This one is by Jonah Goldberg, a conservative writer, who nevertheless has come to understand this key point.
LA Times, Jonah Goldberg, 20 Jun 2023: Most Americans think life was better 50 years ago. That’s ridiculous
The essay opens with a quote that indicates to me, again, that wise people have for millennia recognized the truths only recently being nailed down with evidence by the psychologists:
“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” — Marcel Proust
Goldberg explains that this nostalgia for a better past always seems to target the relatively immediate past.
Nostalgia, a term that originated as a medical diagnosis for Swiss mercenaries suffering from homesickness, is the sorrowful longing for a lost past. An April Pew survey found that nearly 6 out of 10 (58%) Americans think the country was better off for people like them 50 years ago. For Republican and Republican-leaning respondents, nostalgia for the early 1970s reached 72%.
This is bad — but not for the reasons you might think. First, some context. In 1939, Gallup found that 62% of Americans thought people were better off in the horse-and-buggy era (though only 25% said they’d actually want to live then).
Indeed, Americans have always had a thing for the “good old days.” The problem is that what — or when — constitutes the “good old days” is a constantly moving target. It often seems to be about five decades earlier from right now.
Goldberg gives examples of how the “good old days” identified with the 1950s (still by the MAGA folks) and shifted to the 1980s and 1990s in current popular culture.
The simple fact is that nostalgia is a constant in American history. Indeed, it started being a potent force in American politics right when the founding generation died out. Andrew Jackson’s populism played to it. When he vetoed the effort to recharter the Second Bank of the United States, he declared he was doing so to “revive that devoted patriotism and spirit of compromise which distinguished the sages of the Revolution and the fathers of our Union.” Not quite as pithy as “Make America Great Again,” but you get the point.
Politicians play on nostalgia because it is one of the most powerful human emotions. My hunch is that many people confuse their own gauzy memories of their personal life with a narcissistic and ideological indictment of today.
Goldberg recalls a whole bunch of bad things that were happening in the 1970s, during his childhood, and then shifts to today, concluding (in Steven Pinkerish mode),
Americans are richer today than decades ago. Adjusted for purchasing power, Mississippians — who live in our poorest state — have higher incomes than the French. We live longer, have more free time, and travel more affordably. Infant mortality has been cut in half; our air and water quality is vastly improved. Our cars are much better and much safer. Our homes are bigger and more comfortable. The number of people injured or killed on the jobs has plummeted. We’ve made real progress against racism in the last several decades.
None of this is to say today is perfect. Nor is it to say that everything has gotten better. Rather, it’s just to note that nostalgia is a terrible guide, because it tends to take progress for granted and replaces feelings for memory. Any politician who actually delivered the reality of the “good old days” would be pelted from office. Which is why it’s a good thing they can’t deliver on such promises.
People’s experience of history is generally confined to their own: the current day compared to the time of their childhood. Nostalgia replaces history and evidence. And yet, I’m still haunted by that insight I tried to capture a couple of days ago: that maybe the longing for an ideal past isn’t for the era of one’s own childhood, but for the per-agricultural, hunter-gatherer existence of humankind, the era of hundreds of thousands of years that shaped human nature into what it remains today. A human nature uncomfortable with the modern world.
If we can accept this conclusion, then this undermines the entire conservative worldview, as described by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, and as I summarized here:
And then he quotes two cogent summaries of the Grand Narratives of the left and the right, on pages 284 and 285. The former is about the struggle for equality and happiness, the latter about the struggle to return to a golden past. These descriptions are creepy in the way they echo current campaign rhetoric.
But there was no golden past. What are we to make of the whole conservative project? That it’s based on errors of perception in the modern world by a human nature optimized to a simpler life on the Savannah? Something like that.