Any 20-something who’s returned to visit her teenage bedroom knows how much you can change in a single decade. (Oh hey there, Good Charlotte poster.)
And yet it’s still hard to believe that one day you’ll be a 30-something who thinks the boyfriend, hairstyle, or IKEA furniture you loved in your 20s now seems absolutely ridiculous.
Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert calls this phenomenon “the end of history illusion.”
Essentially, Gilbert explains in his 2014 TED talk, people are unable to anticipate just how much they will change in the future — even though they can appreciate how much they have grown in the past. So, at every age, you think the person you are today is the person you’ll be for the rest of your life.
To be sure, Gilbert says, the rate of personal change is faster when you’re younger. (There’s a big difference between a 10-year-old and a 20-year-old; not so much between an 80-year-old and a 90-year-old.) But the fact is, your personality, your preferences, and your values never stop evolving.
The problem is that this illusion can hurt your ability to make sound decisions that affect your future.
For example, Gilbert conducted an experiment in which he asked people how much they would pay to see their favourite musician perform 10 years from now. On average, people said they would pay $US129. Then he asked them how much they would pay to see their favourite musician from 10 years ago perform today. On average, people said they would pay $US80.
In theory, the two numbers should be the same. But “we overpay for the opportunity to indulge our current preferences because we overestimate their stability.”
You can probably come up with more serious consequences of the end of history illusion — like marrying someone who you think you’ll still love in 10 years or choosing a career that you think will satisfy you for life.
Gilbert admits that he’s not sure exactly why it’s so hard to predict how much you’re going to change. But one theory is that it’s a lot easier to remember the past than it is to imagine the future. You can’t envision yourself with anyone but your current significant other, so you assume that you’ll never want to be with anyone else.
“We find it hard to imagine who we’re going to be, and then we mistakenly think that because it’s hard to imagine, it’s not likely to happen,” Gilbert says.
There may also be a psychological benefit to our failure to predict how much we’ll change. In an episode of TED Radio Hour, Gilbert tells host Guy Raz that “most people are fundamentally satisfied with who they are. … The idea that any of these things might change feels a little threatening.”
Moreover, there’s something exciting about our misperception of time.
“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” Gilbert says in his TED talk.
In other words, we’re constantly surprising ourselves with how much we’ve learned, how much we’ve accomplished, and how much we’ve grown.
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