Seeing the 1960s forest for the Mad Men trees.

Doesn’t it feel sometimes like the trendy thing to do is reminisce about the past?

Joan Harris (nee Holloway) on "Mad Men"

With the return of AMC’s Mad Men on Sunday, a legion of fans will be tuning in to marvel at Joan’s bodacious curves, Roger and Don’s alcohol-soaked workplace antics, and Betty Draper’s disturbingly standoffish take on parenting. Stephen King’s popular new book 11/22/63 is about a man who travels back in time to 1958. Shows like Pan Am and Playboy Club debuted this year, hoping to capitalize on audiences’ apparent love for reminiscing. It even seems like fashion has pivoted back towards the past, with retro dresses popping up in store windows across the country. But as we all sit around and revel in the nostalgic quirks of the 1960s, is there anything psychological going on beneath the surface?

There’s a fairly straightforward reason why we love to reminisce; feeling “nostalgic” tends to be associated with a variety of positive emotions, like happiness, social connection, and positive feelings about oneself. However, nostalgia might also have some sneaky side effects.

People tend think about things in the distant past (or future) in abstract terms, whereas they think about things in the recent past or future more concretely. For example, when thinking about a person from a distant past, you might think in broad terms about what this person was like – his/her disposition, general personality, or overarching behavioral tendencies. As you think about people from the more recent past, however, you might think more concretely – you would think about specific behaviors that these people did, or actual things that they said. Essentially, it’s like that cliché about “seeing the forest for the trees” – things that are further away are seen more like the forest, while things that are closer are seen like the trees.

When it comes to nostalgic thoughts, they typically fall into that abstract category – which makes sense, since they are (by nature) thoughts about the distant past. However, people actually think about nostalgic events more concretely when they are relating those thoughts to their current lives. Essentially, what this means is that when people describe nostalgic events, they think of those things as being psychologically distant from their current states…but when they relate those nostalgic events to their everyday lives, they speak as if they’re thinking about those events as psychologically closer.

How might this relate to TV shows like Mad Men? Well, watching specific characters and events unfold right in front of you is basically like being served concrete descriptions of the past on a silver platter. Instead of thinking about “the 1960s” or “the past,” you end up thinking about Roger’s drinking habits, or Joan’s accordion-playing skills.

However, one important question remains: Does this make any difference in how we move forward with our lives?

It might. One way in which we learn from the past in order to improve our behavior in the future is through the use of counterfactual thinking. Counterfactuals are best described as those ever-present “coulda, woulda, shouldas,” or “if onlys.” If you ever think to yourself, “I can’t believe I got such a bad sunburn…if only I used sunscreen,” you’ve engaged in counterfactual thinking.

As it turns out, when people think counterfactually about events from the more recent past, they form relevant behavioral intentions faster than if they think about things from the distant past. For example, if you thought about a sunburn you got a week ago, you would be quicker to form an intention to wear sunscreen tomorrow than if you thought about a sunburn you got a year ago.

Don Draper on "Mad Men"

If we think back to the fact that watching shows like Mad Men might make the distant past feel closer, how might that relate to counterfactual thoughts and intentions? One of the intriguing aspects of shows like Mad Men is how easy it is to compare (and contrast) the sexist, racist, homophobic world of the 1960s with the world we live in today – which, though vastly improved, is far from perfect. After all, the recent tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin is just the latest example of how far we are from living in a racism-free world. And we already know that drawing comparisons between the nostalgic past and the present day can make these bygone eras feel psychologically closer. So, what if watching the 1960s play out on our TV makes us faster to form intentions related to those discriminatory actions because it makes the past feel more recent?

In other words, does watching Mad Men make us quicker to form intentions to act less racist, sexist, or homophobic in our everyday lives?

Research has yet to answer that last question, as far as I know. But if you tune in to AMC on Sunday night, you still might be surprised by all the ways that the 1960s are reaching forward through your TV to impact your life in 2012.

Smallman, R., & McCulloch, K. (2012). Learning from yesterday’s mistakes to fix tomorrow’s problems: When functional counterfactual thinking and psychological distance collide. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42 (3), 383-390 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.1858

Stephan, E., Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2012). Mental travel into the past: Differentiating recollections of nostalgic, ordinary, and positive events. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42 (3), 290-298 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.1865

Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: Content, Triggers, Functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91 (5), 975-993 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.91.5.975

Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Routledge, C., Arndt, J., & Cordaro, F. (2010). Nostalgia as a repository of social connectedness: The role of attachment-related avoidance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98 (4), 573-586 DOI: 10.1037/a0017597

Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2003). Temporal construal. Psychological Review, 110 (3), 403-421 DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.110.3.403

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