The Blog

The Science Behind Political Nostalgia, False Memory, and Brexit

I'm a scientist who studies memory errors. In particular, I study how people can come to believe they experienced things that never happened. I think that memory science can help us understand some of the starkly conflicting voices we are hearing in the Brexit debate.

Was the UK better off before it joined the EU?

If you say 'yes' to this, you may be experiencing a reminiscence bias that has left you longing for the 'good old days'.

I'm a scientist who studies memory errors. In particular, I study how people can come to believe they experienced things that never happened. I think that memory science can help us understand some of the starkly conflicting voices we are hearing in the Brexit debate.


In my new book, which dropped in the UK on June 16th (2016) and is called 'The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory', I discuss how our memories can lead us astray and can convince us with high confidence and emotionality that we experienced events in fundamentally different ways than we actually did.

These are called 'false memories' and I write about them in the context of everyday misremembering, social media nostalgia, misremembering in police interrogations, and all kinds of other situations.

My work, and the work of my colleagues, demonstrates that everyone has false memories, not just the vulnerable. Scientific research has shown time and time again that we can convince people that they experienced highly emotional events that never happened. It also shows that even if you believe something with high confidence and emotion, it doesn't necessarily mean it happened.

False memories can even convince us that things were better in the past when they weren't, and bias our ability to make important political decisions.


Much like Donald Trump in the US, people like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson would have you believe that things were much better for us before we opened up our borders to pesky migrants, signed international human rights agreements, and made annoying trade deals. That we need to get our country "back" to its original splendor. They want to make our countries great again.

Farage and Johnson seem to have forgotten how comparatively shitty things actually were in the past, or as I like to call it: 'the bad old days'. But I'm not here just to tell you that every single tastemaker I know in science, law, art, economics, and politics makes a compelling and evidence-based argument to vote to remain in the EU on June 23rd. I'm also here to talk about memory science.


Researchers have demonstrated that our remembered experience directly predicts our desire to repeat the experience. If we think that the UK was amazing before it joined the EU, we may want to bring back the way of life that we think existed at that time. This is problematic when these memories are wrong, and according to the psychological concept 'rosy retrospection', this quite likely to be the case. Farage and Johnson clearly have a case of rosy retrospection bias.

Rosy retrospection is our "tendency to remember and recollect events more fondly and positively than they were at the time of the experience". Rosy retrospection essentially means that we are likely to have false memories of our past that make it seem better than it actually was.


Memories of our past are also influenced by age. Around the world scientists have shown that people over the age of 40 typically have what is referred to as a 'reminiscence bump'. This means that in middle and late adulthood we generally remember our adolescence and early twenties better than any other periods of our lives.

The argument is that these years, when we are broadly from 10 to 25 years of age, are remembered as those that formed our identity, the memories that make us who we are. This is true for personal events and public events.

What this means for Brexit is that if you were in your reminiscence bump before the UK joined the EU in 1973 (or the 'European Community' as it was known at the time), or even just before the EU implemented many of the consequences of joining, you are at risk of remembering these times more fondly than you actually experienced them at the time.

This is directly in line with the referendum data, which show that "Britons become increasingly eurosceptic as they grow older." The increase is striking, and coincides perfectly with the 40-year-old mark as "the tipping-point for anti-EU feeling has been found to come in voters' early 40s".


Memory science essentially warms to be careful not to confuse a time in *your* past that defined you, with a time in *the UK's * past that defined you.

The Leave campaign appears to be offering a return to a perceived halcyon era, when in fact much of this idea is based on nostalgia and faulty memory. Instead, these were the days where European countries went to war, people died younger, children lived in greater levels of poverty, employers discriminated freely against women and ethnic minorities and the whole country ate terrible food.

So, when you are standing at the polls contemplating your referendum decision, be sure that you aren't relying too heavily on your inherently faulty memory processes, and instead look at the objective evidence as to what is best for Britain.

Want to learn more about how you can't trust your memory? You can buy my new book here.