Nostalgia May Have Harmful Impact on Those With Negative Past, Says Rutgers–Camden Study

By Tom McLaughlin

In a series of prior studies, Rutgers University–Camden researcher Andrew Abeyta discovered that nostalgic reflection of personal, social events can give people a temporary boost of confidence and, in turn, encourage them to become more committed to growing and improving their relationships.

Abeyta says evidence shows that nostalgic reflection may push avoidant people further away from goals of closeness and intimacy.

In his latest research, however, the assistant professor of psychology finds that nostalgia does not have the same positive psychological benefits for those with a negative past.

The study – conducted by Abeyta and North Dakota State University researchers Taylor Nelson and Clay Routledge – examined whether individual differences in attachment-related avoidance mitigate the ability of nostalgia to energize social pursuits.

The findings, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, showed that, for highly avoidant people, nostalgia did not have the same positive impact of encouraging commitment to adaptive social goals.

“In other words, nostalgia did not change avoidant people’s general reluctance to trust others and their reduced desire to build intimacy and closeness in their relationships,” says Abeyta, a Cherry Hill resident.

In addition, explains the Rutgers University–Camden researcher, there was also some evidence that nostalgic reflection may push avoidant people further away from goals of closeness and intimacy.

“I was pretty surprised by this,” says Abeyta. “I have typically found that nostalgia pushes people toward the interpersonal domain, but this was the one of the first contexts where we saw evidence that nostalgia could push people away from the social domain. Highly avoidant people were showing less interest in interpersonal closeness following nostalgia.”

The Rutgers–Camden researcher says that he was surprised by the new finding, noting it was one of the first contexts where they saw evidence that nostalgia could push people away from the social domain.

According to the Rutgers–Camden researcher, attachment-related avoidance describes the approach to interpersonal relationships where people are reluctant to get close to and trust others.

“People high in attachment-related avoidance typically want to keep their relationship partners at a distance, limit intimacy in relationships, and when things start getting too serious are more apt to move on,” says Abeyta.

This interpersonal disposition, he explains, is thought to start in childhood and result from caregivers who are unavailable and/or unreliable when it comes to providing social comfort and support.

“Basically, a child who gets scared or injured runs to a parent, but the parent is not always available or not very comforting or supportive,” he explains. “These type of kids learn very quickly to rely on themselves and not trust others too much, and these tendencies follow them through adulthood and impact adult friendships and romantic relationships.”

He adds that attachment-related avoidance doesn’t always stem from a negative past, but it is universally recognized as a less productive way of being in relationships and is associated with negative relational outcomes.

In contrast, says Abeyta, people low in attachment-related avoidance do not have any problems getting close to others and view intimacy in relationships as something positive, to be desired. These individuals are also more trusting and generally believe that they can rely on their loved ones for support.

Abeyta notes that the new finding has important implications for the use of nostalgia in interventions for its ability to promote social belonging and goals of connecting with others for those who are lonely or having trouble connecting.

He says that an important step in building interventions around nostalgia is to identify the “boundaries of nostalgia” – determining when it can and cannot be effective.

“This study suggests that nostalgia may not be effective in helping people who generally approach relationship with low trust and avoid intimacy in relationships,” he says. “Nostalgia may actually makes things worse, meaning that more research is needed in this area.”

Moreover, says the Rutgers–Camden researcher, the finding suggests that it is important to understand peoples’ interpersonal pasts to determine whether nostalgia will be useful in helping them connect with others. The research suggests that nostalgia might actually reinforce maladaptive tendencies of avoiding interpersonal closeness and intimacy and being less trustful of others, which have built up over time.

“It might be necessary to work on these avoidant tendencies first,” he says, “before throwing nostalgia into the mix or find a different approach altogether.”

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