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On the End of History Illusion

We underestimate how much we continue to change.

"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." ― Søren Kierkegaard

"Desperate for the new, but disappointed with anything but the familiar, we recolonize past and future." ― J.G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition

When we remember who we were in the past, we recall how different we were and tend to focus on how much we’ve changed. It seems easy to describe how we’ve changed over the years. Our memory may not be as vivid as that of Funes (the Memorious), the fictional character that Borges meets in his short story. However, we’re rather sure of what we recall about our lives, and we’re convinced that we’re different now.

When we look into the future, however, we imagine that we’ll be no different from who we are today. We tend to predict that our values, interests, and preferences will be the same. We are quite convinced that we’ll be the same tomorrow, the next day, and 10 years from now. Such were the conclusions reported recently by a research team of social psychologists in the journal Science.

The researchers called this phenomenon, “the end of history illusion.” They measured the personality patterns, values, and preferences of more than 19,000 people, asking them to estimate how much they believe they had changed in the past decade and how much they would change in the decade to come.

The subjects of the study — individuals ranging in age from 18 to 68 — believed that they had changed a lot in the last decade but would change very little in the future. For example, when asked about changes in musical tastes, people would report substantial changes in taste over the past decade while downplaying expected changes in tastes in the years to come. What is loved today will surely be relished tomorrow, it would seem.

The paper’s authors, including notable social psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson, suggested that we tend to think of the present as a kind of “watershed moment” wherein we believe that we will continue to be who we are for the rest of our lives. We make choices accordingly, often resulting in long-lasting and unanticipated, self-defeating consequences. One thinks of the soon-to-be-regretted tattoo, impulsive purchase of a dream home, or ill-fated marriage.

Daniel Gilbert, a social psychologist at Harvard and one of the study’s authors, reported to The New York Times that, “What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age, we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age, we’re wrong.”

While our choices may ultimately be self-defeating, our motivations may be self-serving. Jordi Quoibach, the study’s lead author, reported in The New York Times that, “Believing that we just reached the peak of our personal evolution makes us feel good." He further stated, “The ‘I wish that I knew then what I know now’ experience might give us a sense of satisfaction and meaning, whereas realizing how transient our preferences and values are might lead us to doubt every decision and generate anxiety.”

Does social psychology offer some ways that we can make sense of these findings? Perhaps the “end of history illusion” can be understood as a kind of availability heuristic. Recalling memories from the past is simply an easier or more automatic cognitive exercise than imagining the future. The future becomes a kind of self-serving extension of the present, based on the only concrete details we have: those of the past. Quoibach has suggested that the illusion might be an example of the fluency heuristic — since it is more difficult to imagine change in the future, we conclude that change is unlikely to occur.

Of course, the “end of history illusion” study is not without its critics. Some have criticized the inherent weakness of comparing two separate groups of people rather than doing a prospective, longitudinal study. Some have criticized the reliance on subjects themselves to assess changes, given the biases associated with autobiographical memory.

Putting aside these criticisms, the article raises some provocative questions and may be getting at something that deserves reflection, if not replication and more research. We tend to experience ourselves as being the same from moment to moment. We encode memories episodically and autobiographically. Our sense of self coheres as a collection of stories, though we perceive a first-person narrator and agent-in-charge. What might be true is that we wrongly believe that we already know the plot or are unaware of how the plot might thicken.

© 2013 Bruce C. Poulsen, All Rights Reserved

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