Declinism, or Why “The Good Old Days” Seem So Good When You’re Older

a sepia tinged photo of an elderly couple sitting outside on lawn chairs
Image by Jan Tik / CC BY

As I’ve written many times, it can be kind of annoying sometimes, and humbling, but the truth is that the human brain is calibrated for speed, not accuracy.

It makes sense when you think of it from an evolutionary perspective. Snap decisions are crucial in survival settings. If you’re being chased by a predator, it’s more important that you react quickly. More important that you react at all. Not that you respond 100% correctly as opposed to 80% or 90% correctly.

If you don’t react at all, you’ll get eaten.

So your decision-making skills are messy, but you figure out you need to run away or fight — or whatever it is your amygdala decides — ASAP.

Now, the modern world isn’t without its own challenges. But they’re rarely as clearcut as being chased by a predator. Many times you’re faced with a complex social situation or are late to work because you’re stuck in rush hour traffic…

And you feel like something is chasing you. But it never goes away.

Furthermore, you’re often faced with complicated decisions where accuracy might be more important than brute speed, strictly speaking.

And yet, we can’t escape the cognitive biases that are so innate to us, part of this machinery that’s trying to help us but often screws things up in our modern world.

Declinism, or Living in the Past, and the Reminiscence Bump

Our brains predispose us to live in the past and fear the future.

Declinism is a cognitive bias whereby people tend to remember the past as better than it was and to simultaneously expect the future to be worse than it will actually be. It It gets its name from a feeling that the culture you’re living in is “in decline.”

At any given time, regardless of when it is or what country you’re living in, people are likely to feel like that country is in decline relative to the past.

Research has found that declinism becomes primarily marked as we age. The older we get, the more likely we are to remember positive early life experiences and forget the negative ones. This is believed to be due to something called the “reminiscence bump,” a tendency for middle-aged and elderly individuals to better remember their personal memories from the ages of 10 to 30 than any other period of life.

When this nostalgia is sharply contrasted with an ever-uncertain future, there’s really no contest.
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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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