Recency Bias vs. Nostalgia: Why The Latter Will Always Win

The music we hear as children creates a bond with our fondest memories.

The concept of the "recency bias" is fascinating. For those who don't know, it refers to the phenomenon by which we remember recent events more clearly, and therefore automatically gain a bias towards them over events that happened long ago. A good example of this happened in the Formula One community recently, when the 2019 German Grand Prix was voted as the Race of the Decade over the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix. Scandalous, and there can be no doubt that the recency bias played a part.

It can be seen in many aspects of life, particularly with performance evaluations of employees, a common victim of the effect. The assessors often tend to look at recent accomplishments only, rather than the full evaluation period. By focussing too much on just the latest events, the recency bias kicks in and the evaluation results are skewed as a result.

But the recency bias isn't universal, and one area in particular seems immune to it: music. Music is almost the exact opposite in terms of where the bias lies, as nostalgia tends to rule the industry. How often do we hear people say that "music isn't as good nowadays" and criticise modern artists when comparing them to the legends of the game? Whether it's hip-hop, rock or heavy metal, it doesn't matter - fans will always say that the modern stuff doesn't compare to the classics.

There are a number of reasons for this, but at heart, it's really quite simple. Music is personal, and something we get into as a child. Many of our fondest memories whilst growing up can be accompanied by the music we were hearing at the time, what we were listening to as we formed ourselves. This gives the music of that time a special place in our hearts, so in truth, we will always prefer it. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and when we can connect music to our favourite memories, that music will always be our preference.

Now we are adults, it's unfortunately different. Yes, we can still create good memories, but it's far less likely that our heads will connect it with modern music, particularly if we are continuing to listen primarily to the older music in the first place. The music, then, lacks the aid of that power, so that even if we enjoy it, we struggle to admit that it may be better than, or at least on par with, older music.

This is why nostalgia has the edge over the recency bias in the more personal aspects of life. Video games are also ruled by nostalgia; it's why the last few years, why this generation of gaming has been dominated by remakes and remasters. Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, Resident Evil, Final Fantasy. Shadow of the Colossus... the list of remakes goes on, because nostalgia is fuelling the video games industry.

Music isn't quite the same, with the charts still being dominated with the newer stuff, however it may have played a part in the vinyl and cassette revival of the last few years. Nevertheless, while the charts may tell one story, people tell another, and so often it's all about the classics. That's why we do both new album and retrospective reviews, aiming to cater to both sides of the industry.

People certainly like new music, that's not the issue here. But older music is more special to people, holding a personal and emotional bond with the listener that cannot be broken. Those links to fond memories are what truly make people prefer old music, and why new music will almost always be shunned in favour of it. On the one hand, it seems harsh, but let's not forget that modern artists are only hear because their heroes made the music which influenced them as kids, so in truth, they'd probably agree with your assessment themselves!

The good news is that there are currently millions of children around the world making their memories with what's popular now, and in a few decades' time, they'll still be listening to it over whatever's coming out then. It's a cycle in which the nostalgia factor is constantly moving with the times, always moving forwards with the generations. The best music? It was always thirty years ago.