A friend of mine often argues that pop music has reached its lowest point in history, and that current billboard charts can't hope to compare to those from, say, the 1980s. A deluge of opinion articles suggest that lots of people feel the same way about the entire decade we've just emerged from. The 2000s, or "aughts," have been called the worst decade ever, in general, existentially, economically, politically, and musically. Lonely dissenters suggest that this may have been the best decade ever, at least for Boston sports, lesbians, and some developing nations. But overall, support for the last ten years is scarce. According to a recent poll, only about a quarter of Americans think the 2000s was a good decade, compared to almost 60% positive reviews of the 80s and 90s.
Were the 2000s really all that bad? And were previous decades really that much better? Research in psychology suggests that these might not be the right questions to ask if we want to explain the current anti-aught sentiment. Instead, there might be more basic reasons that we tend to think poorly of the recent past and take a rosier view on the distant past. This type of nostalgia is at the heart of social conservative longing for a time when families were families, full of men who were men and wives who were wives; even generation Y-ers demonstrate it whenever we wistfully discuss ancient times when people bought encyclopedias and had to make plans before leaving home. But nostalgia also follows naturally from the way most people form and store memories. Studies of memory bias converge on the idea that people do not store past events the way a camera records images. Instead, we construct memories through a mixture of our actual past experiences and the ways we are motivated to think of our pasts now. A side effect of this is that most people--who are motivated to think positively about their lives--remember the past more positively than they actually experienced it at the time. Further, this bias increases over time, through a lop-sided "fading" of negative recollections.
The consequence of this fading is that older events and periods of time are likely to come out on top, since they have had more time than their recent counterparts to be turned into hazy, lovingly biased mental representations. The fate of recent memories is worsened by the fact that negative moods and events trigger nostalgia for the distant past. As such, remembering the 2000s as a failure may have more to do with people's moods last week than the actual character of the last decade.
Culture can also act as a transpersonal cognitive machine enhancing pre-2000 preferences. For example, in defending his assertion that pop music's glory days are behind it, my friend can endlessly tick off 20th century classics. However, these songs are remembered decades later precisely because they were better than most. Our memory for bygone culture is disproportionately populated with songs, books, and films that have this kind of staying power, whereas the recent past doesn't get such favorable treatment. A good way of overcoming this bias is to look up the song that was #1 on the Billboard charts the day you were born. Apparently, on my first ever car-ride from the hospital, the radio would likely have played Olivia Newton-John's "Magic." No offense to her, but if this song represents the 80s, I think current music can compete.
Hindsight may be more friendly and less 20-20 than we imagine. Is this a problem? Nostalgia--along with any lack of realism about the past--was once viewed as a sign of mental illness, stemming from diverse causes including cowbell-related noise pollution (in 19th century Switzerland) and a desire to return to earlier life stages (under 20th century psychoanalytic views). Contrary to these old views, it turns out that positively skewing the past likely help keep us happy and connected with each other in the present. In a series of recent studies (reviewed here), a group of psychologists found that a dose of nostalgia makes people feel happier, have higher self-esteem and desire to connect with others, and can even stave off fears of death. In fact, some of the only people who do not show positive memory biases are the clinically depressed. In fact, all types of inaccuracies--including unrealistic optimism about the future--may be protective factors for mental health, suggesting that remembering the 1990s as better than they were and inflating expectations about the 2010s may both be good ideas.
Still, it's easy to feel bad for the lonely aughts, which may have gotten the short end of the stick not just because of the events of the last decade, but also because of how we remember them. On the bright side for fans of the 2000s, the decade may age well. Pessimistic as it seems, in 20 years we may recall the turn of the century as an era when things--for some vague, faded reason--were better.