January 16, 2013

Meet Your Future Self

As we age, we tend to think we are pretty much done changing. But the truth is there is more to come.

If you are giving up on your New Year's resolutions, thinking that it's too late for you to change, think again. Many of us believe that our personalities have changed a lot in the past, but the way we are today is the way we’re going to stay. This is what is known as the “end of history illusion” — we generally experience the end of history as being right now, and we don’t much take into account tomorrow.

History, it seems, is always ending today.

It is easy to see why this occurs, since we only have direct knowledge of the past and present. But it turns out that this illusion also causes us to underestimate – sometimes significantly – how much we might change in the years to come.

A new study set out to explore this phenomenon, and to see how people’s predictions of how they might change in the future matched (or disagreed with) how much people actually changed over the years. Researchers polled 19,000 people between the ages of 18 and 68, comparing the answers of people one decade apart in age.

People in every age group underestimated the amount they would change going forward, even as they acknowledged how much they'd changed in the past. When asked how much they would pay to hear a favorite band from ten years ago play today, respondents said $80. But when asked how much they'd pay to hear their favorite band today play in ten years from now, they were willing to pay $129. Even though they knew their love of Blink 182 had faded, they were sure they'd still want to hear the Black Keys a decade down the road.

Just because you can't imagine what you will be like in ten years, doesn't mean you aren't going to change.

Researchers also asked the participants how much they thought their personalities had changed over the past decade – and again, they also quizzed participants 10 years younger – and how much they expected they would change over the next decade.

Interestingly, people of any age believed they had changed a lot in the past, but would change relatively little in the future, as if the way they were now was the way they would be for the rest of their lives. The “end of history illusion” was slightly greater for younger people than it was for older people, but it was always there. In reality, however, people’s personalities continued to evolve and shift over the years.

“Both teenagers and grandparents seem to believe that the pace of personal change has slowed to a crawl and that they have recently become the people they will remain,” the researchers concluded. “History, it seems, is always ending today.” In their article in the journal, Science, they suggest that the reason for the illusion that we are no longer changing very much may be that “[We]...confuse the difficulty of imagining personal change with the unlikelihood of change itself.” In other words, just because you can't imagine what you will be like in ten years, doesn't mean you aren't going to change.

The truth is that we continue to evolve over the years, which is a good thing to keep in mind as the New Year gets underway – so if there are things about yourself you’re hoping to change, there’s a good chance you’ll be successful.
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