Nostalgia for the Past

Our preference for certain products and cultural images that are no longer popular is explained.

By Elise Kramer, published September 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Do you prefer Farrah Fawcett's feathered hair? Or Jennifer Aniston's do? Most of us carry a torch for images that were popular when we were in our early 20s, no matter how old we are.

Morris Holbrook, a professor of marketing at Columbia University in New York, and Robert Schindler, a business professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, examined consumer nostalgia—defined as a preference for products and images that were popular in the past but can no longer be easily obtained.

Though the word nostalgia may evoke childhood memories of Grandma's baking, the studies found that, on average, people are most attached to memories from their early adulthood. In each experiment, people ranging in age from younger than 20 years old to older than 80 rated images of products, including cars, movies and hairstyles.

Holbrook and Schindler say there seems to be a critical period for preference-formation, during which people "imprint" on popular products. But mere exposure isn't enough to spur nostalgic bonding, argues Schindler. "It has to do with depth of emotional experience," he says. "When something is powerful to you, it creates an enduring bond in your psyche."

Why does the critical period occur during one's early 20s? Timothy Burke, a history professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, says this time of life is formative because it marks the beginning of independent choices, "the moment in which you become a volitional consumer," as opposed to being dressed by your parents.

Holbrook advances the "raging hormone hypothesis" to help explain the timing of the critical period, as well as why it occurs earlier for some items; surging hormones during late adolescence, particularly in males, may lend a special significance to products—such as clothing and women's hairstyles—linked to the time when they first started dating.

Does all of this mean that in the future, when today's young people reflect upon the halcyon days of their youth, stores will be flooded with Britney Spears merchandise and endless aisles of bling? Says Holbrook: "That's what I'm afraid of."