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The role of nostalgia in innovation


Innovation has an inherently futuristic feel about it.  Protagonists may protest otherwise, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that it powers an organisation away from it’s dark and dowdy past into a bright and optimistic future.  In such a narrative, there is little room for nostalgia, purely because the past is something you’re actively trying to get away from.

A new study from Southampton University suggests however that this may be a mistake.  It suggests that nostalgia is not something that is limited purely to the past, but that it can also have a positive impact on our outlook for the future.

“Nostalgia is experienced frequently and virtually by everyone and we know that it can maintain psychological comfort,” says study co-author Tim Wildschut. “For example, nostalgic reverie can combat loneliness. We wanted to take that a step further and assess whether it can increase a feeling of optimism about the future.”

The study asked participants to write about a nostalgic event from their past.  This narrative was then compared to people in a control group who were asked to provide a similar story about an ordinary event to see how frequently optimistic words were included in each story.  It emerged that the nostalgic event contained significantly higher numbers of optimistic words and expressions than the regular stories, which seems reasonable enough.  After all, people reflect fondly on nostalgic events, so positive words are to be expected.

To further test their hypothesis, the researchers looked to the music industry.  Participants were played a song they were either nostalgic about, or one they were broadly ambivalent about.  It emerged that listening to the nostalgic song prompted feelings of optimism in participants.  This was strengthened by another study where nostalgic song lyrics were presented to the group, with again, optimistic feelings generated by the lyrics.

The researchers suggest that the positive impact of nostalgia can be explained by its affect on our self-esteem.

“Nostalgia raises self-esteem which in turn heightens optimism,” explains Wildschut. “Our findings have shown that nostalgia does have the capacity to facilitate perceptions of a more positive future.

“Memories of the past can help to maintain current feelings of self-worth and can contribute to a brighter outlook on the future. Our findings do imply that nostalgia, by promoting optimism, could help individuals cope with psychological adversity.”

So in an innovation context, this would appear to imply that nostalgia about your companies past may help it to prosper in the future, because it would reinforce the image that what has been done in the past was still pretty good.  Of course, the research failed to delve into what exactly people were optimistic about, and it’s quite possible that if your innovation is diverging significantly from the nostalgic past, then this esteem boost won’t be so evident.  That is after all, the crux of the innovators dilemma.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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