The pace of technological innovation is breathtaking. AI technology, for example, has advanced rapidly. In the face of this rapid innovation, many people are nostalgic for retro technology, such as older versions of phone gadgets, cameras, or televisions. People cannot shake off their nostalgia for technologies of yore.

Nostalgia, a sentimental longing and wistful desire for one's past, may in part drive the appeal of vintage technology. We wondered whether it does more than make people long for simpler technologies of years past. Does nostalgia lead people to oppose modern technology? Does nostalgia breed negativity toward innovation? Can nostalgia help to overcome barriers to technological innovation, potentially improving person-machine interface or user experience? Can nostalgia be an effective marketing tool helping to endorse new technology?

Nostalgia Influences Attitudes Toward Innovative Technology Via Two Routes

Feeling nostalgic implies relishing aspects of one's past, including objects that made up the fabric of one's daily life. In addition to enhancing the psychological value of first-generation iPhones, dumbphones, and retro computers, nostalgic reverie could also make people view innovative technology with skepticism, raising opposition to innovation. Nostalgia, as a past-oriented emotion, could foster negative attitudes toward future-oriented novel technology.

But nostalgia can also be a future-oriented emotion, nurturing positivity toward innovation. When people are nostalgic, close others and important moments defined by close others come to mind. People feel socially connected to key figures from their past—protected, loved, and trusting. Social connectedness leads people to approach and embrace the future, seeking new challenges. Nostalgia can be a forward-looking emotion, fostering positive attitudes toward innovative technology.  

The Duality of Nostalgia Tested

We tested the duality of nostalgia in a survey. We recruited approximately 300 British adult participants via the online research platform Prolific. Participants indicated their habitual levels of nostalgia, skepticism about change, social connectedness, and support for research on innovative technologies (AI and 5G technologies).

More nostalgic participants were more skeptical about change, which in turn predicted their opposition to research on AI/5G technology. At the same time, nostalgia was associated with feeling socially connected, which in turn predicted support for research on AI/5G technology. So, nostalgia was associated with both disapproval and endorsement of innovative technology via distinct psychological pathways—skepticism for change and social connectedness.

We also tested these two routes from nostalgia to attitudes toward technological innovation in an experiment. We recruited approximately 300 Chinese adult participants via the research online platform Credamo. Half of our participants brought to mind a nostalgic experience from their past, which made them momentarily nostalgic. The other half (control participants) brought to mind an ordinary experience from their past. Then, all participants indicated their skepticism about change, feelings of social connection, support for research on AI/5G technology, and willingness to volunteer in research on AI/5G technology.

Again, nostalgia increased skepticism about change, and through this pathway reduced support for research into AI/5G technology and weakened the willingness to volunteer for research that would further this technology. Simultaneously, nostalgia increased social connectedness, and through this pathway increased support for research into AI/5G technology and strengthened the willingness to volunteer for research that would advance this technology.

In sum, nostalgia can be a double-edged sword; it can simultaneously increase and decrease support for technological innovation, by making people skeptical about change and socially connected.

Possible Applications

How to surmount psychological barriers to technology? Some (https://doi.org/10 .1016/j.chb.2018.12.017) have suggested that increasing self-efficacy in operating machines could raise positivity toward innovation. Others (https://doi.org/10 .3389/fpsyg.2015.01701) have emphasized that personality traits like extraversion could help. Our findings indicate that increasing social connectedness could help overcome technological barriers.

Under what circumstances is nostalgia an effective marketing tool? The acceptance or sales of innovative technological products may increase when these products are packaged with nostalgic cues or are accompanied by nostalgic labels.

Conclusion

The economist and diplomat Dag Hammarskjold wrote: "The intensity of a man's faith in life can be gauged by his readiness to say yes to the past and yes to the future." Nostalgia says yes to a meaningful past. It says both no and yes to technologies that represent a fast-changing future.


For Further Reading

Dang, J., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., & Liu, L. (2023). More than a barrier: Nostalgia inhibits, but also promotes, favorable responses to innovative technology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000368

Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2016). Past forward: Nostalgia as a motivational force. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(5), 319–321. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2016.01.008

Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Routledge, C., Arndt, J., Hepper, E. G., & Zhou, X. (2015). To nostalgize: Mixing memory with affect and desire. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 51, 189–273. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.aesp.2014.10.001

Constantine Sedikides is a Professor at University of Southampton. He studies nostalgia, self-evaluation (self-enhancement/self-protection, narcissism), and authenticity.

Tim Wildschut is a Professor at University of Southampton. He studies nostalgia.

Jianning Dang is an Associate Professor at Beijing Normal University. She studies human–robot interaction and, more broadly, human–technology relationships.

Li Liu is a Professor at Beijing Normal University. He studies human–robot interaction and intergroup relationships.