The problem with prediction is that it requires imagination. When scientists forecast the ravages of climate change—that by the year 2100 the Arctic will be a much thinner version of its current self or the ocean will be three feet taller—we are prompted to project ourselves into the future. This is not our forte suggest Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson in their article The End of History Illusion (EHI.) We tend to fix our gaze on our present selves, neglecting the fact that life varies over time.
To understand our short-sighted vision, the authors asked more than 19,000 people, aged 18 to 68, about their personalities, ideals and principals, as well as their likes and dislikes in the present, ten years earlier, and ten years into the future. They found that many participants believed that they were different than their younger selves but disregarded the notion that maturation is a longitudinal process. “People,” they said, “…regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.” We err on the side of making decisions that delight now, discounting distress down the line.
The study is not perfect, as Bruce Poulsen points out in another Psychology Today post that discusses the EHI study. The research is based on the vagaries of autobiographical memory and queries participants at one time, rather than across time. Still, constructing one’s future is hard on the brain and takes more cognitive power than reconstructing the past. Imagining our lives threatened by the distant dangers of global warming seems particularly taxing. Gilbert, co-author of the EHI study, posits that we can detect threat and consider our options along with their consequences, but “we haven’t quite gotten the knack of treating the future like the present because we have only been practicing for a couple of million years,” a blink in geologic time. The human brain, he says, is still in the research and development stage.
How do we dim the myopic glow of the present? For posterity’s sake, we can practice being in the future, where the ice has melted, the seas are higher, and our children live the consequences