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On nostalgia, binary bias, the paradox mindset, and our complicated past

Q&A Dolly Chugh, management professor at the NYU Stern School of Business and author of A More Just Future: Psychological Tools for Reckoning with Our Past and Driving Social Change.

Dolly Chugh is a social psychologist and management professor at the NYU Stern School of Business. Her research focuses on “bounded ethicality,” which she describes as “the psychology of good people.” She is author of A More Just Future: Psychological Tools for Reckoning with Our Past and Driving Social Change. She also wrote The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias.  

I had an opportunity to talk with Dolly recently about A More Just Future. We explored common threads in our work, from a general psychological and cognitive standpoint, about how we view the past present and future. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

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Why Dolly Chugh wrote this book

Annie: You’ve written this book in the wake of a lot of division and unrest about Americans confronting hard things in our shared past. I’d love to hear what spurred you to write it and what you felt you were bringing to the table in terms of that conversation.

Dolly Chugh: A lot of my work stems from me feeling ill-equipped to handle a situation in the world, just finding myself fumbling and stumbling. Then, when you layer on that I’m also a parent, I’m feeling even more inadequate. I believe a lot of people experience similar feelings. As a psychologist, I’m reaching for evidence-based tools out there that can help us.

The specific incident that sparked the book involved some uncomfortable emotions that hit me 10 years ago, on a day that started as one of the most joyous, beautiful family moments I could imagine.

As a parent, I smugly thought I was crushing it. I was reading to my daughters every night. Book after book, including the entire Little House on the Prairie series, which took us a whole year. We got really invested in these books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, about her family and the 1800’s and the frontier and the prairie and the hardships they faced. The values displayed in the book, the work ethic and the loyalty and the love, were all things that my husband and I were very committed to bringing to our family.

We got so invested that we decided for summer vacation in 2014 we would go to South Dakota and Minnesota, and visit all the places that the Ingalls family lived in real life. My little girls bought prairie dresses locally made in the general store in Smith, South Dakota. They were running around through the tall grasses of this giant piece of land with the gorgeous blue sky above, looking so cute in those dresses, . We captured a picture and just savored this moment.

Then, in that instant, it hit me as a font-of-mind thought for the first time. Whose land was this before they built their little house on it? Of course, it was the land of other people, and they had cultures and families and lives and economies and rituals. There were 6 million Native Americans. I have no particular background or interest in history. But in that moment, it occurred to me that even though the Ingalls were a hardworking family, with so much love, who overcame so much, it was also in the context of a larger societal event.

I had never told my kids about that part. They were old enough by that time to know. I would like to tell you that what happened is that I told my kids, on that prairie, “Hey, let’s learn more, since we’re here. Let’s get more of this history and this story and contextualize this.”

But I didn’t.

I felt very ashamed that, for a whole year, I hadn’t really dealt with this. I felt ashamed that I didn’t know much to share. I felt guilty, I felt angry. I felt so many things and I just shut it down and put it aside.

It just ate away at me afterwards. I’m a psychologist, this shouldn’t be so complicated. We should be able to talk about this. Everything I told my kids was true but there was more to the truth, and I should have been able to tell them both truths. What made it so hard was that it felt contradictory. It felt good and bad, like it was not a clean narrative.

That trip was during the summer of 2014. For five years, my thoughts kept returning to it.

By 2019, I started to piece together that there’s a lot in the field, not necessarily research I’ve done, but research out there that could really help us. We just haven’t mobilized it to think about this problem. That’s when the idea of a book started to formulate, not because I’m a historian, but precisely because I’m not. For all of us who celebrate holidays that have historical roots, who cheer on teams that have mascots who have historical roots, who live in cities with streets and names, who work in companies that have complicated histories, who are live in families that have complicated histories. For all of us: How do we deal with this complexity when it comes up? I started thinking about this as a psychological toolkit and pitched the book to publishers.

Annie: What was the initial response when you pitched this?

Dolly Chugh: Believe it or not, early pushback I got was, “I don’t think anybody’s really thinking about the past. I don’t think this is a topic that is a thing.” I thought, “Really?” Because in the orbits I was in, which often involve young people, 20-somethings, 30-somethings that I teach, and trying to listen to the dialogues on social media, I was hearing tons of dialogue about the past, everywhere. I wasn’t buying that it’s not a topic.

When I got into developing a set of psychological tools, I was delight with what I found. There’s a lot we can work with that’s not that complicated. An experience I have when I give talks about this is that something as simple as naming the problem, like “the patriot’s paradox,” seems to help people a lot.

The patriot’s paradox and (lack of) psychological distance

Annie: I definitely want to get to the cognitive processes at work that make the subject of our past so fraught, as well as the psychological tools you’ve developed to address them. But could you start by defining “the patriot’s paradox” for us?

Dolly Chugh: It’s the idea that when you love something so much, it sometimes makes it difficult to see the fullness of it. For example, a patriot’s paradox is that I am a child of immigrants who gave up everything to be here. The narrative of my house has always been that America’s the greatest country on earth. At the same time, does that love of country make it hard for me to sometimes see the ways in which our country is selling itself short and not living up to its own standards and ideals or not being as competitive as we could be? I think that’s where the patriot’s paradox is right now with our country.

Annie: The point you’re making about the patriot’s paradox resonates with me when I think about examples of what seems like similar thinking patterns. As individuals we think on an individual level, whether it’s with our kids or our spouse or our jobs, that when we really love something, it makes it very hard for us to hold negative thoughts about it. And because a society is a collection of individuals, that’s going to happen for some things on a societal level as well.

When you love something so much, you are endowed to it. It’s like we’re so endowed to our own country, so we value it more highly, and we think it’s better than other countries. Same thing with our endowment to our children. We think they’re better than other children. Evolutionarily, that’s as it should be, right?

Dolly Chugh: Yes.

Annie: But when you’re so endowed something, what comes with that is we value it more than something like it that is not ours. I would imagine that it’s easier for us to see the problems in other countries that we can’t see in ours. We don’t have that same kind of paradox when looking at another country. We can see things as more balanced. I love France and can tell you all kinds of things that are great about France, but I don’t have a problem recognizing bad things about it.

Dolly Chugh: That’s a great point. That’s interesting because you’re threading together ideas that I talk about in the book, but that I hadn’t connected in exactly the way you did. I really like how you did that. For example, in the book, I talk about psychological distance and the role that plays. Research by psychologists Yaacov Trope and Nira Liberman has shown that, when we think about people, places, and events, we situate them a certain psychological distance from us based on four criteria: the degree to which they are (a) like me, (b) here, (c) now, and (d) reality.

Annie: When we think about psychological distance, it feels like when we get more distant from something, that hopefully we should see it more clearly. I can look at another country – I don’t know why I’m picking on France today – but I can say that France is great, but it’s also not great. But when we think about the past, whether it’s our own personal past or the past of our country, it feels like the distance actually creates bias in the way that we think about it.

Dolly Chugh: That’s a great point.

Asymmetries in thinking about past versus future events

Annie: Can you talk about what that asymmetry is in terms of what comes to the fore and what fades away? Related to that, I’d also like to hear what you have to say about the distortive effect of nostalgia.

Dolly Chugh: Somehow, time operates differently than the other dimensions of psychological distance with nostalgia. In the book, I get into the science of nostalgia, which is really fascinating.

Eugene Caruso has done some really interesting research about the temporal asymmetries of how we view things in the future versus the past. For instance, we experience more intense emotion when anticipating an event than when remembering it afterward. Applied to moral judgments, people feel more guilt about a future transgression than about a past one. Combined with our tendency to believe people get what they deserve, we are more likely to blame the victim for something that happened farther back in time than for the same thing that happened more recently.

Nostalgia and the illusion of moral decline

Annie: Last year, Adam Mastroianni and Dan Gilbert published a research paper titled, “The Illusion of Moral Decline.” How does their work relate to your book?

Dolly Chugh: I don’t know it, but perhaps my tangent about Eugene Caruso’s work is more directly related to nostalgia than I thought. When you just mentioned Dan Gilbert, it popped into my head that he was a coauthor with Caruso of an important paper on the asymmetry between the value of past and future events.

Annie: Interesting. Basically, they show that, if you look at surveys of what people think about what’s happening in terms of morality, everybody thinks we’re in a period of decline. Everything’s going to hell in a hand basket. But people have said the same thing in surveys for the last 70 years. In the Fifties, they thought that the Fifties were a period of moral decline. In the Sixties, they thought the Sixties were a period of moral decline. And so on in every decade. But when you ask people who lived through those times to look back, they’re like, “Things were great then, everything was super moral, and now it’s crap.”

Dolly Chugh: I love that. That’s great.

Annie: It’s called “the illusion of moral decline” because we know that the way that you judge it in the moment is very different than the way you judge it on the look back. I’m thinking back to your Little House on the Prairie experience as well. It seems like when we’re looking at the past in terms of the definition of nostalgia, we have rose colored glasses on. I’m just curious about how you think this plays into this problem. When I think about what’s happening in politics and driving people’s political decisions today, a lot of it is a longing for the way that things used to be.

Dolly Chugh: Yes. The what the research on nostalgia says is that nostalgia gives us a sense of belonging, a sense of comfort. The lonelier we are, the more we search for nostalgia. There are all these psychological benefits to nostalgia that also translate into of economic benefits. Pretty much every industry has made a billion-dollar business out of nostalgia. You think about music, fashion, sports, travel – it’s everywhere.

Annie: Retro is cool.

Dolly Chugh: And it’s not just cool because teenagers have discovered old fashions. It’s cool for people who lived through it. When I do talks on this, I put up a picture of a View Master.  I bet if I showed you a View Master right now, you would have a certain reaction.

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Annie: I would want to look at it. I would want to hold it up and I’d want to click it.

Dolly Chugh: That’s just what happens in the audience. I just show a picture and you immediately see this very visceral, emotive response come over people. I say, “What you just experienced is nostalgia.” I usually call on a couple of people and they describe this thing that happened in their bodies and in their minds and in their souls. That’s what nostalgia does for us. There are all sorts of psychological advantages to having it.

The challenge is when we confuse nostalgia with truth, with reality.

Annie: What I assume, in terms of metacognition, is that we don’t recognize that there’s an asymmetry in the decay or the salience of memories or the emotion that we attach to memories. When we’re thinking about the past, we’re remembering the good stuff asymmetrically to the bad stuff. If you think about what you just talked about, belongingness and so on and so forth, we’re remembering the things that give us that sense of belongingness, that make us feel happy, make us feel the traditions that made us feel part of our family, not the huge fights that we had or whatever.

Dolly Chugh: Exactly.

Annie: I guess this goes a little bit with the illusion of moral decline. We actually connect that with reality, and we think that things were better back then.

Dolly Chugh: I think that’s right. There’s a Billy Joel lyric from the song, “Keeping the Faith,” where he sings, “The good ol’ days weren’t always good. And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” I think there’s the nostalgia piece, and then if you also partition it by whose stories we’re talking about, then you’ve also got this dominant group effect that exacerbates this problem because we’re all prone to nostalgia. We all benefit from the psychology of it. At the same time, there’s a craving for a time when there were also clear disadvantages to certain parts of the population. It becomes a situation where, for example, some men are longing for the workplace of the past, but that workplace didn’t look so good to women and minorities. That creates a clash.

Annie: I love that so much of what you’re talking about in the book is this duality, and there’s this duality to the nostalgia itself. We get all sorts of good stuff from it in terms of emotional wellbeing and psychological health. But then it also causes us to see a very distortive view of reality, which can then drive, for example, policy decisions or what a particular politician might be selling us. Some of it can just be fun, like, “I’m going to collect LPs.” But some of it is, “I want things to be like they were in the early Sixties and that’s how I’m going to vote.” And the problem is that you’re not necessarily remembering what it was actually like back then.

It reminds me of something your NYU colleague, Jay Van Bavel, researches and writes about. I feel like there’s that duality running through tribalism as well. We can see clearly how tribe is so destructive in our politics, particularly when it becomes about distinctiveness. How we are distinct from other people, as opposed to the belongingness piece. But nobody would argue that a human being is going to be psychologically well if they’re tribeless, because we do get so much from the sense of belongingness and distinctiveness from other people. There is so much good in tribalism and group dynamics, but then there’s also so much bad that goes along with it too. It sounds like you’re saying something very similar about tribalism and that we can intersect the two.

Dolly Chugh: Absolutely. I just spent the last five days in Albany at the Women’s March Madness, and I was at the LSU-Iowa game. It was a very intense situation. People were intensely polarized in the arena, and it was very elevated. I genuinely like both teams and I was clapping when either team did something well. I could feel the discomfort of the people around me. I could feel them looking at me. My behavior was odd because it was violating this tribal thing.

Binary thinking versus a paradox mindset

Annie: I feel like there’s so much paradox in both of these. Then, going back to what you said about when you view something as positive, you can’t really see the negative. I assume the inverse is true as well. When you view something negatively, it’s hard for you to see the positive.

First of all, are humans just wired to think in this very yes-no, binary kind of way?

Dolly Chugh: Yes, we are wired that way. We crave consistency and coherence. Our minds react to cognitive inconsistencies as if they were crooked pictures on the wall. We want to nudge them into place, and it bothers us when we can’t. Likewise, when our thoughts don’t align with each other or with our actions, or our actions of today and yesterday don’t align, we experience discomfort or guilt because things don’t line up. One example is “binary bias,” our tendency to flatten complex stories into simple either/or binaries.

Annie: But in the book, you explain that we are capable of holding inconsistencies in our brains without getting everything to line up.

Dolly Chugh: Yes, it is possible. The research that management professors Wendy Smith, Marion Lewis, and others have done on what they call “a paradox mindset” shows that we absolutely can, if we simply accept that we don’t have to resolve every inconsistency, and that both aspects of an inconsistency can be true.

Annie: What does a paradox mindset consist of?

Dolly Chugh: If you activate a paradox mindset, you tell yourself that two contradictory things can both be true. You don’t try to solve that problem. It’s not a Rubik’s cube you try to solve. You just allow it to remain unsolved. The research says that, when we do that, we show more creativity and are more resilient. My theory of the mechanism at work is that all that mental fuel being deployed to try to solve the problem gets redeployed because you no longer have to solve the problem. Both things can be true.

Annie: In the book, you illustrated this with an example about Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans. Could you share a summary of that?

Dolly Chugh: One of the people I interviewed for the book was Mitch Landrieu, who was mayor of New Orleans from 2010 to 2018. He received a lot of national attention when he made the decision to take down Confederate monuments and statues from public land. It ended up taking years and some say it cost him his political career. When I interviewed him for the book they told me, “You can have 14 minutes on his schedule.” I told him I wanted to hear more about his decision, and I asked my question. He gave this really charismatic response about building the future of New Orleans. It made me want to move to New Orleans. He was using all these promotion-oriented words. Because I knew I had only 14 minutes, 7 minutes in, I said, “I’m so sorry to interrupt, Mayor Landrieu, but I’m confused. How do you reconcile that you are talking in terms of building something when what I’m here about is tearing something down? How can both those things be true?”

And he didn’t miss a beat. He said, “We live in contradiction all the time. I can do both things at the same time. I can build something up and I can tear something down.” I thought his description and the details of the building and the tearing-down were a perfect example of what you get from activating this paradox mindset. You’re able to see possibilities that you couldn’t see otherwise because you’re not trying to sit in this binary. You’re able to step outside it and see ways in which we can honor the past, but we don’t have to honor the past in this way, and we don’t have to honor this particular past. That’s the power that I see in this paradox mindset. I think if I could have done that on the prairie with my kids, I could have totally had that conversation.

Annie: I have written extensively about the idea that we’re all sitting in uncertainty, and, instead of rejecting it, we should get comfortable with it and embrace it. From that perspective, it’s like, “We don’t know with certainty, and that’s fine. We don’t need to know with certainty.” I feel like when it is better to accept living in that, and correct me if I’m wrong, it feels like otherwise, you’re forcing destruction in a sense. If we want to look at our own past or the past of a nation, and say, “It’s just great,” then you have to destroy everything else. Whether we’re not teaching it, which we know has happened, or we deny it or say it’s not true, then there’s destruction. But I think you can go to the flip side. There are people who, once they acknowledge that not everything about the past was good, and some of it was, from our perspective, immoral or shameful, they then want to destroy everything else along with it, even though there are all sorts of great things as well that we can celebrate. If you can’t adopt the paradox mindset, there’s just going to be destruction that occurs.

Dolly Chugh: Yes, well said. There’s no reason to destroy. In this case, we need both. We need to know the good so we can replicate it, and we need to know the bad so we can deal with it.

Annie: Also, just from a decision-making perspective, if you don’t have that kind of mindset, how can you think about different things that can occur in the future? You need the ability to be able to think about the good and bad to anything that could occur in the future, and balance that. Both things are always going to exist. It can’t be one or the other. If you can’t do that, it’s going to be problematic for decision-making. To your point, whichever side you’re on, because you’re looking at it through the binary, you now don’t have a realistic model of what has occurred, which means that you can’t take good lessons from the past that you can to then apply to the future. That’s going to be true on a societal level. It’s going to be true in your business, to be true for your kids, be true for your marriage.

Dolly Chugh: Yes, that’s exactly right. The paradox mindset is one of the seven psychological tools in the book, and I think those tools are very broadly applicable to everything that you just listed.

The seven psychological tools

Annie: I know the book’s seven chapters correspond to the tools, and we should at least click through those.

Dolly Chugh: The title of the prologue is, “So Much to Unlearn.” Basically, these tools are for how we unlearn things. The first tool, “See the Problem,” is where I talk about nostalgia and just knowing that it’s okay to love nostalgia. We all do, but we don’t want to confuse it for what it’s not.

The second tool is “Dressing for the Weather.” This is kind of affective forecasting, Dan Gilbert-type of stuff. We think this emotional ride is going to be so awful. We’re not going to be able to handle it, so we just won’t go. Instead, we could dress for the weather – the emotional weather – which just means we know that nostalgia is going to come. We know that things might feel a little crummy and uncomfortable, but that we will ride it out and be glad we have, and we’ll get to the other side.

The third tool is “Embrace Paradox.” We’ve talked quite a bit about that, activating a paradox mindset in which two contradictory things can be true. Incidentally, when I do a talk, I’ll go through three or four of the tools. Sometimes, I ask people at the end, “Which tool did you find most useful?” Paradox mindset always wins. They love it because they feel like they can immediately reconcile things about everything, not just about the topics I’m talking about, but about their lives, about their health, about everything.

Annie: The paradox mindset is very true to my heart because it’s holding two thoughts in your head at the same time and living in the uncertainty and not needing resolution or an answer or solution because it’s not possible. What I love about that is that accepting it opens you up to other opportunities. You can start to see other ways to live and thrive.

Dolly Chugh: The fourth tool, “Connect the Dots,” gets into some of the research, like the stuff we talked about with Eugene Caruso and others. It’s particularly difficult, and there’s some good signs to show why it’s difficult, to see why things in the past, especially bad things, relate to what’s happening now, which is why it’s easier to make individual attributions than systemic attributions for things.

The fifth tool, “Reject Racial Fables,” is about our tendency to flatten things and create very linear kind of uni-causal explanations for things as opposed to multi-causal. I use the Rosa Parks story. I think that’s really powerful.

Tool six is “Take Responsibility.” How does one think about responsibility when it wasn’t you personally who was involved? What does that mean?

Tool seven, “Build Grit,” is about what I call “gritty patriotism.” How do we take Angela Duckworth’s work about passion and perseverance and pursuit of a meaningful long-term goal and apply it to our shared history? Our “meaningful long-term goal” is the country we care about and love and what we want for that country. The “passion and perseverance” is that we need to ride out the highs and lows of that. Those seven tools together are meant to give us a path for unlearning that, as you said, is an alternative to destruction of one side or the other.

Annie: That seems so important. When I think about what’s happening on social media, it feels like that type of destruction. You have to sit on one side or the other. If you’re on one side, it’s a complete destruction of the other narrative. If you’re on the other side, it’s a complete destruction of that narrative. It’s like nuance just isn’t rewarded.

Dolly Chugh: I agree. I don’t know how to solve for that.

Annie: I have no idea how to solve for that either. It feels like, thinking back to leaders in the past who have been very authoritarian in nature, like Hitler and Mussolini, it seems like you see this pattern of this leverage of the things that you’re trying to solve for in terms of nostalgia. There ends up being a lot of narrative around what used to be, what’s been taken away from you, those kinds of things. I feel like I don’t know how to solve for it, but it feels like what you’re saying is that these are very deep aspects of cognition and that they’re fulfilling certain needs that we have in terms of our own wellbeing. When you go back to what you’re saying, “Don’t confuse nostalgia with reality,” it seems like we do confuse the two and that’s been leveraged to some pretty dastardly ends.

Dolly Chugh: Right. I think that’s part of this idea of the first tool, “See the Problem.” What you just said kind of defines the problem. No one’s taking nostalgia away from us. We need it. There’s an important psychological function there. At the same time, we don’t want to act on it, and we need to remember that a lot of the tribal clashes we’re having are because we’re assuming our nostalgia is everyone’s, and it’s not.

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