Nostalgia as a Behavior Change Motivator

We know from our research and practical experience that if we want to create behavior change, especially related to the environment, we can’t use gloom and doom statistics. Many people will shut down and will fail to listen to our message, regardless of how dire the subject matter.

But what about nostalgia as a behavior change motivator? Not the nostalgia that comes from an old pair of jeans that are now a little too snug. And not even the nostalgia that comes from looking through an old yearbook.

I’m talking about tapping into the feeling that things are much different than they used to be, and not for the better. Let me explain.

Over the recent holidays, I found myself talking with older relatives about how the weather just doesn’t seem to be as cold as it was when they were children. And this conversation happened more than once. Stories of sledding, building snowmen, snowball fights and the like were reflected upon longingly.

Granted, these conversations were taken with a grain of salt. As often is the case with nostalgia, people tend to develop what Merriam-Webster calls “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for a return to some past period.”

What is undeniable is the legitimate sense of longing exhibited as my relatives reminisced about the cold winter days of their youth. This leads me to believe that nostalgia could be a powerful behavior change tool, if used correctly.

We often find that people can’t connect emotionally to issues that occur outside of their frame of reference. Trying to get people on board with a cause that doesn’t directly affect them can be a losing battle. That said, what could be more squarely rooted in a person’s frame of reference than their memories, especially happy ones?

The key is to tug at heartstrings carefully. Tug too hard and you may get stuck with a campy message that would make Norman Rockwell roll his eyes. Too little and your message could be lost.   



  1. Interesting hypothesis . . . is there experimental evidence for/against this approach? What would Bob Cialdini have to say about this? It would be interesting to find out.

  2. I love it! I agree, my strategy is to engage people at “their point of interest” not mine and I believe this syncs up with that approach. Don’t hammer them with your message at the front, hook them at a point that gets them to STOP for a moment, then deliver you creatively crafted message.

    I grew up in Northern Michigan and this resonated with me, as I remember those winters with at least 15 snow days off school, but now I think they only get a few. I recall waking up early and our family was huddled around the radio as the announcer read all the school districts that were closed. It was like winning the lottery when they called your school district name.

    Thanks for helping me harvest that memory, since it just came to light as I was writing this post.

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