It was the second hottest year in recorded history. Hurricanes decimated the Caribbean and flooded major cities on the Gulf. Northern and Southern California resembled hellscapes of fire, ash, and mud. A tiff between world leaders threatened thermonuclear war. Beloved cultural icons were revealed to have committed heinous sexual misconduct. Regulations protecting the air, water, and land were repealed en masse. Investigators found Russian influence in the 2016 United States presidential election to be significant, and the potential of collusion in the Trump campaign threatens the impeachment of our President. Happiness regressed to levels not seen before 2014.
But was 2017 the worst year ever? It depends on when you’re asked.
When I think back ten years, I first recall the excitement and hope I felt in 2008 during the campaign and election of President Barack Obama. It requires more effort for me to vividly recall anxiety-provoking events of that year. The world economy nearly collapsed, wars engulfed Iraq and Afghanistan, and there were more than 220,000 deaths in Asia due to cyclones and earthquakes, just to name a few of 2008’s worst moments.
Our memory resembles a record store. It stocks the hits and the stinkers of the present, but only the hits of the past.
A product of this memory quirk is our nostalgic preferences. Whether judging music, movies, television shows, cars, or the quality of actors and actresses, people tend to prefer past experiences to their present counterparts. In research published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, I found evidence that our nostalgic preferences can be traced to the confluence of two cognitive biases: accessibility and representativeness.
Accessibility bias leads us to better remember the best instance of an era, whether judging the present or the past—that is, the exemplars are more accessible to our recall.
In 2005 I asked Boston commuters to rate the television shows of the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s, and the commuters exhibited nostalgic preferences. They rated television shows of the 80s and 90s to be better than the shows of their present. More important, after they rated the quality of shows, I asked them to recall either any one show that they could remember or to recall the best show that they could remember. Across all three decades, the commuters who were asked to recall any one show (e.g., Cheers, Seinfeld, The Wire) recalled a show that they rated as highly as the commuters who were asked to recall the best show that they could remember.
It wasn’t that people were simply more likely to think of a popular (e.g., syndicated) show from the past. When they thought of a show from the present or the past, everyone recalled a great show, whether or not they were supposed to recall one of the best shows on television or could name any show that came to mind. But this accessibility bias alone didn’t drive nostalgic preferences. It was true for all decades, past and present.
With enough hindsight, 2017 might have been a great year.
A second feature of biased memory, representativeness, did explain the connection between the accessibility bias and nostalgic preferences. Commuters who judged shows from the 1980s or 1990s believed that the show they recalled was more typical of the other shows on television at that time. In contrast, commuters who judged their present decade believed the show they recalled was less typical of the other shows currently on television. In other words, the great shows seemed more representative of the other shows on television in the past than in the present.
This perception also explained nostalgic preferences in a second study. In this study, participants rated the quality of movies made either a year prior or in the year in which they graduated from high school. Participants believed their favorite movies were similarly good in both conditions. Yet participants believed movies made in years past to have been better, on average, than movies made in the previous year.
Again, differences in representativeness explained these results.
The perception that their favorite movies were more representative of all movies of the distant than recent past explained their nostalgic preferences. Even though I think Get Out (2017) is at least as good as From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), for instance, right now it seems less representative of the other movies made in 2017 than From Dusk Till Dawn seems of movies made in 1996. And since From Dusk Till Dawn is one of my favorites, I am prone to judge movies made in 2017 more harshly than movies made in 1996.
A third study provided insight into how the best experiences gradually seem more representative of all experiences of their kind. In the study, participants were asked to rate the average quality of television shows from the 80s, 90s, or their present decade. Again they exhibited nostalgic preferences, despite rating the best shows as similarly good across all three decades.
This suggests that people do not forget their bad experiences. Instead, with time, bad experiences are perceived to be have been better than they actually were.
What was most revealing is how these participants rated the worst shows on television. Participants rated the worst shows of the past as higher quality than the worst shows of the present. This suggests that people do not forget their bad experiences. Instead, with time, bad experiences are perceived to be have been better than they actually were. In other words, it’s not that we forget that Alf was on television; it’s that we recall Alf as having been better than it actually was. In extreme cases, people may come to believe that their original evaluations were wrong. Indeed, many movies and albums initially shunned as drivel, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Pinkerton (or From Dusk Till Dawn), eventually become sleeper hits (1).
So how will we remember 2017?
Its highlight, for me, was the birth of my first child. In a decade, when I think of 2017, I am confident that I will recall his birth as quickly as I do today. Others may think of #MeToo and a movement in our culture to end harassment. Sports fans may remember Serena Williams winning her 23rd Grand Slam while pregnant or NFL players protesting racial inequality and police brutality. If you’re Australian, you might recall it as the year the law passed granting all people the right to marry the person they love.
What will fade with time is the despair we associate with the worst days of 2017. We’ve still got climate change to worry about, increasing inequality, and a future that resembles a bad episode of The Simpsons. With enough hindsight, 2017 might have been a great year.
(1) A flip in the valence of a particular stimulus from negative to positive was not the primary focus of the article. Alternative explanations like the mere exposure effect may ultimately better explain these particular cases.