Can thinking of the past help us cope with modern life?

By Koh Juan Zhen and Gemma Calvert

Singapore is rapidly becoming a city of the future. As part of plans to make Singapore Asia’s first smart city, sensors across the island will monitor everything from cleanliness, crowd density and traffic flow. The world’s first self-driving taxis began public testing here last August ahead of a planned launch in 2018, and in July 2016 Singapore topped the World Economic Forum’s index of countries that are best positioned to take advantage of the digital economy for the second year in a row. Despite these advances, Singaporeans still work longer hours than any other nation.

Rather than providing us with more free time, technology seems to push our lives along at an ever quickening pace. The natural reaction for many is to reminisce about the past – a time when life was simpler. A new study has revealed that feeling nostalgic can not only help us to feel secure, it can effectively slow down our perception of time and even make us more patient, a rare virtue in this fast-paced society.

Could this explain why Singapore is gripped by a nostalgic trend? From retro restaurants, cafes and speakeasies in heritage neighbourhoods; to traditional barber shops and tattoo parlours; as well as a boom in handmade craft, old-fashioned bicycles and retro glasses, Singaporeans it seems are not prepared to let go of the past that easily.

There are obvious benefits for businesses. We are immediately drawn in as we recognise once cherished things from our past, such as outdated technology, the old family car or music and toys from our childhood. Indeed, the worldwide success of Nitendo’s “Pokemon Go” is largely fuelled by its nostalgic element. We are strangely attracted to things from our past and this positive emotional connection rubs off on businesses that follow the nostalgic trend.

The good old days

The study published last year in the Journal of Consumer Research by Dr Irene Huang, a Fellow of the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight, and her colleagues – set out to explore what happens to consumers when they feel nostalgic. Nostalgia is defined here as the act of recalling and savouring a specific experience from a lost time that is unlikely to happen again.

The research hypothesised that when people feel nostalgic, they want to hold onto those memories, and as a consequence, become more patient. The theory was confirmed across a range of experiments in various consumer situations such as waiting for a web page to load, waiting for an item to be delivered and even waiting for long-term health benefits.

One of the experiments tested consumers’ willingness to wait for a higher value reward instead of immediately cashing in a lower value reward. Half of the participants were primed to think of an event in the past that they felt nostalgic about, while the remaining control group were asked instead to think about a normal day. All participants were then told they would be entered into a lucky draw and if they won they could choose between an immediate prize of $14 or wait one month and collect a $22 prize.

93% of participants who were primed to feel nostalgic chose to wait for the larger reward, while just 65% of the control group made the same choice, proving that nostalgic thoughts made people more willing to wait in exchange for a greater reward.

A similar willingness to wait was seen in a field survey that asked 90 people who had been waiting for between 10 to 20 minutes for a table at a restaurant to estimate how long they had been waiting. Respondents were primed to feel nostalgic by inserting the phrase “Nostalgia – Memories of our good old days” into a questionnaire, while for the control group the phrase was omitted. Those who were primed to feel nostalgic estimated they had been waiting an average of 5.8 minutes, while the control group estimated 8.3 minutes – 43% longer. This shows that even a simple mention of nostalgia can have a significant effect on a consumer’s perception of time passing.

Customer satisfaction

These findings have many possible applications for businesses, especially those that compete based on customer satisfaction and where customers are regularly subjected to long wait times such as at airports or popular restaurants. There are also potential benefits for businesses that generate higher profits when people feel comfortable and remain on their premises such as in retail stores or bars.

For example, businesses, such as attractions and restaurants who may have queuing customers, could evoke a sense of nostalgia by showcasing images of the company’s past or vintage-looking ornaments in order to distract from the boredom of queuing. Nostalgia could also be imbued into the design of urban landscapes to foster a more patient society. Over the past few years, mural paintings showcasing Singapore’s past has adorned the walls along Everton Road and many others, a move that was warmly welcomed by the public.

Nostalgic themes have also been widely exploited by advertising agencies to foster a deep, emotional connection between consumers and the brands being advertised, and studies have shown that audiences are more tolerant of interruptions to program viewing when nostalgia is invoked.

Nostalgic ads are often launched when families get together for religious holidays such as Hari Raya or Chinese New Year to maximise feelings of nostalgia. Rubber Boy, a TV ad for Petronas shown during CNY in 2016 in Malaysia is a filmic tale set in the late 70s or early 80s of a boy who is bullied at school because he is poor. He criticises his mother for not working hard enough and insists on going to work with her to tap rubber trees in a plantation. He discovers how hard she works and eventually sees the error of his ways, breaking down and apologising to her. The ad was hugely popular, winning Malaysia’s first Cannes Lion Gold award at the Cannes International Advertising Festival and has over three million views on YouTube.

The power of this tale is intrinsically linked to its nostalgic elements, pulling on the heart strings of the viewer and making them wonder if they took their parents for granted when they were young. Lasting nearly five minutes, the ad certainly tests the patience of viewers, but the story is so compelling that viewers typically forget they are watching an advert.

This research shows that nostalgia can have a significant influence on how consumers feel, how they behave and the strength of their ongoing relationship with brands and even nations. Although as Singaporeans we see the value in queuing and waiting (if there’s a queue the food must be good!) nobody really enjoys waiting in line. For consumers, nostalgia should be seen as a good thing; it can help us to relax and it can reduce the stress of our daily lives. Businesses should harness this effect to improve customer experience whenever time and patience are factors.


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Author: Koh Juan Zhen, Gemma Calvert
Date: 26 April 2017

About the Authors

Koh Juan Zhen is a Research Assistant at ACI. Prior to joining ACI, she was an Assistant Marketing and Business Development Manager in the tourism industry and led various integrated marketing campaigns and partnership initiatives to drive reach and sales. Her research interests lie in the area of consumer behaviour and how emotions and subconscious mental processing influence decision-making.

Professor Gemma Calvert is the Director for Research & Development at the Institute for Asian Consumer Insight and Professor of Marketing at the Nanyang Business School, NTU. A pioneer of neuromarketing, she helps companies to break into Asian emerging markets through deeper understanding of Asian consumers using brain and psychology-based research methods.