Nostalgia: What, When, and Why?

Anytime I hear songs from when I was in high school or college, I get very nostalgic. I remember people I knew, places I went, good times I had. It's a powerful and complex feeling, with all sorts of interesting psychological aspects, but for some reason, I'd never really thought about studying it. Then I got an alert from ScienceDirect earlier this week that contained a paper titled "Nostalgia: Content, Triggers, Functions" by Wildschut et al.1, and I was immediately fascinated. And since I know you are all fascinated by the things that fascinate me, I thought I'd write about it a little.

First off, the paper starts with a great description of early (17th century early) theories of nostalgia. It's so interesting that I have to quote it:

The term nostalgia was actually introduced by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer (1688/1934) to refer to the adverse psychological and physiological symptoms displayed by Swiss mercenaries who plied their trade on foreign shores. Hofer conceptualized nostalgia as a medical or neurological disease. Symptoms were thought to include persistent thinking of home, bouts of weeping, anxiety, irregular heartbeat, anorexia, insomnia, and even smothering sensations (McCann, 1941). Hofer regarded nostalgia as "a cerebral disease" (p. 387) caused by "the quite continuous vibration of animal spirits through those fibers of the middle brain in which impressed traces of ideas of the Fatherland still cling" (p. 384). The physician J. J. Scheuchzer (1732), a contemporary of Hofer's, proposed instead that nostalgia was due to "a sharp differential in atmospheric pressure causing excessive body pressurization, which in turn drove blood from the heart to the brain, thereby producing the observed affliction of sentiment" (cited in Davis, 1979, p. 2). Scheuchzer applied this theory to account for the supposedly high incidence of nostalgia among Swiss mercenaries who left their Alpine homes to fight on the plains of Europe. Finally, not content with either explanation, some military physicians proposed that nostalgia was largely confined to the Swiss because of the unremitting clanging of cowbells in the Alps, which inflicted damage upon the eardrum and brain. (p. 975)

Cowbells! That's priceless. Anyway, Wildschut et al. note that there isn't a whole hell of a lot of research on nostalgia, at least outside of the marketing literature (where the main focus is how to make money off of nostalgia), so they conducted six exploratory studies designed to get an idea, as the title suggests, of the content of nostalgia, what triggers it, and when we tend to experience it. I'll go through all six, and then discuss another paper by Arndt, Sedikides, and Wildschut that connects nostalgia and terror management theory at the end of the post.

Nostalgia: The What

The first two studies looked on the content of nostalgic experiences. They focused on three dimensions: salience of self, the objects of nostalgia, "redemptiion" vs. "contamination," and "affective signature." They also looked at the frequency of nostalgia, and in the second study, asked questions about what triggered nostalgia, along with what was desirable and undesirable about nostalgia. The first study analyzed 42 stories published in the journal Nostalgia (who knew such a thing existed?), and the second study asked university undergrads to describe nostalgic experiences. The results from both groups were very similar, so I'll discuss them together.

  • Salience of self: Unsurprisingly, they found that the self played a central role in almost all experiences of nostalgia.
  • Objects of notalgia: The most frequent objects of nostalgia were "momentous events," people, "settings," periods of life, and oddly enough, in one of the two studies, pets.
  • "Redemption" vs "contamination": "Redemption," in this case, indicates a passing from something negative to something more positive, while "contamination" is the reverse, positive to negative. Wildschut et al. found that redemption was common, and occurred more than 3 times as often as contamination in people's descriptions of nostalgic experiences.
  • "Affective signature": In both studies, positive emotions were more common than negative emotions. In the second study, participants self-reports of the emotions they experienced while describing nostalgic experiences were also positive significantly more often than they were negative.

Interestingly, 79% of participants reported experiencing nostalgia at least once a week, and 16% said they experience it at least once a day. So, nostalgia appears to be composed of memories that center around the self and momentous events, people we're close to, places we've been, and periods in our life. They also seem to be about positive emotions and elicit positive emotions. These findings actually provide cues about why we experience nostalgia when we do. When participants reported things that trigger nostalgia for them, in the second study, the most frequently listed triggers was negative affect. Thinking about positive events, people we care about, places we like, and times when things went from bad to good (redemption), is probably a good way to feel a bit better when we're experiencing negative emotions. Other commonly listed triggers of nostalgia were social interactions and "sensory input" (e.g., music or smells).

Nostalgia: The When

Since negative affect was the most frequently listed trigger for nostalgia in the second study, the next two studies focused on it. Thus, in their third study, Wildschut et al. gave participants one of three stories, designed to elicit either negative emotions, positive emotions, or to be emotionally neutral. Questions designed to test whether people were actually experiencing negative emotions after reading the negative story or positive emotions after reading the positive story showed that the stories were in fact effective at eliciting the desired affects. They then used two measure of nostalgia that I'll let them describe:

We administered two measures of nostalgia. Participants first completed Batcho's (1995) Nostalgia Inventory (NI). They rated on a 5-point scale (1= not at all, 5 = very much) extent to which they missed 18 aspects of their past. The items were "my family," "not having to worry," "places," "music," "someone I loved," "my friends," "things I did," "my childhood toys," "the way people were," "feelings I had," "my school," "having someone to depend on," "holidays I went on," "the way society was," "my pets," "not knowing sad or evil things," "past TV shows, movies," and "my family house." Batcho (1995, 1998) provided preliminary evidence for the validity of the NI. Nonetheless, we were concerned that certain properties of the NI could bias our findings. For instance, by instructing participants to rate the extent to which they miss aspects of their past, the NI focuses attention on just a single facet of what we consider to be a multifaceted emotion. For this reason, we constructed an additional measure of nostalgia comprising three items that were rated on a 6-point scale (1 = strongly agree, 6 = strongly disagree). The items were "Right now, I am feeling quite nostalgic," "Right now, I am having nostalgic thoughts," and "I feel nostalgic at the moment" (p. 984)

Consistent with the results from Study 2, participants in the third study scored higher on the Nostalgia Index, and were more likely to report experiencing nostalgia "right now," after reading the negative emotion story than after reading either the positive emotion story or the neutral story. The difference between the positive and netural stories was not significant. Thus, the results of the third study confirm that negative emotion is a trigger for nostalgia.

Study four looked at a specific negative emotion: loneliness. First, participants completed a questionnaire designed, they were told, to measure their level of loneliness. For half of the participants, the questionnaire was designed to make them answer yes to questions indicating that they experience loneliness a lot, and the other half answered a questionnaire designed to get them to answer no. After finishing the questionnaire, an experimenter pretended to score it, and then gave them a report. The participants who took the questionnaire designed to elicit "yes" responses received a report telling them that their loneliness level was higher than average, while the people who completed the question designed to elicit no's were told that they were below average. They then completed an actual loneliness measure (designed to determine how lonely they felt at that moment), and then the Nostalgia Index.

Participants who were told that they were more lonely than average scored higher on the loneliness measure, indicating that the manipulation had worked. They also scored higher on the nostalgia index, indicating that they were more nostalgic than the participants who weren't as lonely. So negative affect in general, and loneliness in particular, are strong triggers of nostalgia.

Nostalgia: The Why

The fifth and sixth studies by Wildschut et al. showed that nostalgic experiences increased social bonding levels (i.e., how much participants felt they fit in), positive self-regard (they liked themselves more), and positive affect. However, instead of discussing those two studies in depth, I'm going to briefly discuss three studies from a paper by Arndt et al. that is currently in press at the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology2. These studies were designed to look at the relationship between mortality salience and nostalgia. Terror management theory states that when people are confronted with thoughts of their own mortality (called "mortality salience"), they seek order and meaning, often through social groups (e.g., religious groups), culturally-dominant values and behaviors (for more in depth discussions of terror management theory, see these two posts). Since Wildschut et al. found that nostalgia produces positive emotions and a sense of belonging (social bonding), it wouldn't be surprising to find that people are more likely to experience nostalgia when mortality salience is high, and that nostalgia helps to reduce the anxiety that comes with thinking about death.

In their first study, they manipulated mortality salience, either by having them answer questions about death (high mortality salience) or going to the dentist (low mortality salience), and had participants complete a measure designed to measure how prone they were to nostalgia, and a measure of how meaningful they thought life was. They predicted that participants who were prone to nostalgia would find life more meaningful when mortality salience was high than when mortality salience was low, because the high mortality salience would elicit nostalgia, which would in turn make life seem more meaningful. This is in fact what they found.

The second study used the same mortality salience manipulation (death questions vs. dentist questions), along with a measure of nostalgia-proneness, and finally a measure of how available thoughts of death were for the participants. The prediction in this study is that, for participants who are highly prone to nostalgia, thoughts of death will be less available in the high mortality salience condition than for participants who aren't as prone to nostalgia. Once again, the results confirmed the prediction: thoughts of death were equally available for high and low nostalgia-proneness participants in the low mortality salience condition, but significantly lower for high-proneness participants than low-proneness participants in the high mortality salience condition.

The third study explored the effects of nostalgia on the availability of thoughts of death more directly. In this experiment, participants were again exposed to the mortality salience manipulation, and also asked to recall either a "nostalgic event" in their lives (nostalgic condition) or an event from the past week (non-nostalgic condition). Finally, the availability of thoughts of death was measured. Consistent with the results of the second study, when mortality salience was high, the availability of thoughts of death was significantly lower for participants in the nostaltic condition than for participants in the non-nostalgic condition.

So, from these three studies, it appears that nostalgia does serve a "terror management function." That is, because it reduces negative affect and makes us feel better about ourselves and our position in the social world, it helps reduce existential anxiety. Perhaps the more important lesson from all of the studies described in this post, though, is that nostalgia is pretty effective at making us feel better when we're down, because it reminds us of good times, people we are or were close to, or times when we've overcome something negative. I hope these studies spark more research on nostalgia. In particular, I'd like to see some research on the memory aspects of nostalgia. Why do we remember particular events at particular times when we experience analogy? Is there a relationship between the cause of our current negative affect and the specific memories that we recall while nostalgic? For now, though, these studies seem like a good launching point.

1Wildschut, T., Constantine, S., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: Contents, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(5), 975-993.
>2Arndt, C., Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (In Press). A blast from the past: The terror management function of nostalgia. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.


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I had been curious about nostalgia for a while and it seems that you open the box for me. I find it as a defense against pain and a regressive mechanism that allows the self a respite from the daily pressures. Yearning for the past is a way of refucussing on the next step for the future, unfortunately physical illness may play a role as to how much you get fixeded in that past. Thank you for the good work.

The Swiss mercenaries' 'nostalgia' sounds less like our own sentimentality than it does what would later be called "Battle Fatigue" which then morphed into "shell shock" and later into PTSD.

By Pat Mathews (not verified) on 11 Nov 2006 #permalink

Nostalgia in this example involving Swiss soldiers of fortune could be regression on the babies cry for the mother. Urge that produces it seems to be the same, just the expression is different. I have seen a Serbian movie on the Bosnian war whose title could be translated as "Nice villages burn nicely". In the movie, Bosnian Serb soldiers are trapped in the tunnel and under the siege for days without food or water. In the moment of nervous breakdown, one of them simply walks out of the tunnel, facing the enemies guns. Before being shoot, he is asked where is he heading, and the answer was HOME. The green grass of home was reflected so vividly in his facial gestures.

My husband's business involves some dealing in vintage material, which he terms nostalgia, and to which he is emotionally connected to an extent I've never observed in anyone else. His personal mortality salience is also so low as to be off the bottom of any chart. I should not have connected the two before reading this fascinating post.

My own responses are led by a curiosity about the relationship of cellular memory to nostalgia. In terms of remembering something that once was and is no longer, and of the intensity of the memory experience, phantom limbs came to mind.
Another thing I'm now even more curious about is the contextual aspects of both memory and triggers. Would different types of nostalgia triggers produce different types or levels of response? For example, a vivid nostalgic experience can be triggered by a smell. Someone having such an experience can often describe vividly every sensory aspect of their 'flashback' if prompted. Among the many questions this leads me to is whether each of us equally sensitive to different types of triggers.

One of the conslusions your post leads me to is no surprise, and that is that fear is far more powerful a motivator than pleasure. The surprising idea for me is that stronger or fuller connection to intense pleasurable memory correlates, potentially, to less fearfulness.


Here we go again but this time with a different response to the nostalgia experience. Yes it is a way of defending one self from the terror of present situations but also may represent a way of dealing with unsolved issues from the past that take the pleasant hue, remembering to deal with what was fun in realistic ways may be a way of being more present in the current terror, that no matter how pleasant it was also there is a natural resiliency to keep going.