the end of history illusion
January 6, 2013 11:48 AM   Subscribe

Why You Won’t Be the Person You Expect to Be (NYT): "When we remember our past selves, they seem quite different. We know how much our personalities and tastes have changed over the years. But when we look ahead, somehow we expect ourselves to stay the same... They called this phenomenon the “end of history illusion,” in which people tend to “underestimate how much they will change in the future.”" (via exp.lore)

A new study led by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, examines why you won’t stay the same.
Why? Dr. Gilbert and his collaborators, Jordi Quoidbach of Harvard and Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia, had a few theories, starting with the well-documented tendency of people to overestimate their own wonderfulness.

“Believing that we just reached the peak of our personal evolution makes us feel good,” Dr. Quoidbach said. “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.”

Or maybe the explanation has more to do with mental energy: predicting the future requires more work than simply recalling the past. “People may confuse the difficulty of imagining personal change with the unlikelihood of change itself,” the authors wrote in Science.
*If you're avoiding NYT links, it's also on The Scientist: Metamorphosis Complete
*Here is the study's abstract at Science (Science 4 January 2013: Vol. 339 no. 6115 pp. 96-98)
*text & audio from All Things Considered at NPR: You Can't See It, But You'll Be A Different Person In 10 Years
*the study's weaknesses at People Underestimate How Much They Might Change in the Future: Studyr

Wild Fox Zen: The End of History Illusion And Some Implications
In Buddhism we call the end of history illusion a “fixed idea of a self” and sometimes try to address it by looking back over the course of our life and how we’ve changed, starting with our baby pictures. The research here suggests that this dharma strategy is not likely to be effective. You see, we’re good at looking at the past and appreciating we’ve changed. We’re bad at looking at the future and appreciating that “we” will be somebody else and our choices now will create our future self. What can we do today that our future self would want? This is a hard question because we somehow fool ourselves into thinking we’re at the end of change now. The awesome face of emptiness may be just too hard to be – if we think there’s another choice...

And now for why this matters for the US, for Soto Zen, and for me...
RoarMag: Psychologists discover “end of history illusion”
For a political economist like myself, the question that immediately arises is: what are the political implications of these findings? Obviously, the notion of the “end of history” is a political-philosophical idea coined by Hegel. By way of the French philosopher Alexandre Kojève it was subsequently picked up by the American political economist Francis Fukuyama, who used the concept to argue that the fall of the Soviet Union inaugurated the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy and capitalism.
Daniel Gilbert previously: the vagaries of religious experience - positive psychology
posted by flex (34 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

Perhaps it should be immortalized as the Fukuyama fallacy.
posted by dhartung at 12:14 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

One of the perks of low self-esteem: The idea that I'm as good as I'll ever be is revolting.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:25 PM on January 6, 2013 [8 favorites]

When asked about their favorite band from a decade ago, respondents were typically willing to shell out $80 to attend a concert of the band today. But when they were asked about their current favorite band and how much they would be willing to spend to see the band’s concert in 10 years, the price went up to $129. Even though they realized that favorites from a decade ago like Creed or the Dixie Chicks have lost some of their luster, they apparently expect Coldplay and Rihanna to blaze on forever.

Might this just mean that respondents expect tickets to be more expensive in ten years?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:35 PM on January 6, 2013 [7 favorites]

I just blogged about this study at some length. Short version: unless I've badly misunderstood what they did, their main study didn't measure what they thought they were measuring, and the results that they take as evidence that people are suffering from an "end of history illusion" is in fact what you'd expect to see if people were fully rational.

Not to say that the "end of history" bias isn't real -- other studies have seen similar effects -- but I think this paper doesn't provide much further evidence for its existence.
posted by escabeche at 12:42 PM on January 6, 2013 [10 favorites]

Or Stewart, R.: I wish that I knew what I know now / When I was younger
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:44 PM on January 6, 2013

To say a little more: the problem is that the authors take "size of the difference between predicted future personality and known current personality" to be synonymous with "predicted size of the difference between future personality and current personality." But these quantities are in fact typically not the same. In mathematical terms, the absolute value of the expected value of a variable is not the same thing as the expected value of the absolute value of the variable.

Or, in other terms, if my best estimate for "the price of Apple stock six months from now" is "the current price of Apple stock," because I don't have strong reason to think it's more likely to rise than to fall, that does not mean I'm predicting that Apple stock won't change in price!
posted by escabeche at 12:47 PM on January 6, 2013 [12 favorites]

Ah, 2bucksplus. If only. (Suggested listening while reading.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:47 PM on January 6, 2013

I don't know. Outside of a few unpredictable life choices, I am pretty much where I want to be, which is how I perceive myself being in 5, 10, 20 years as well...does our current perception of self have some sort of bias?
posted by Chuffy at 12:47 PM on January 6, 2013

Speaking of statistical misinterpretation; the odds of my parents ramming this down my throat as inherent proof of their wisdom approach 100 %

All it really shows to me is that people generally don't know where they're going in life, or even how they got there.

I guess I'm surprised that there was any change at all. I see personalities as mostly static.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 12:54 PM on January 6, 2013

I do know this, through the years, if I am not "regular", I am a bear in search of a glade.
posted by clavdivs at 12:55 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

"She has an illusion, and you have reality. May your way be as pleasant."

-Star Trek
posted by clavdivs at 12:58 PM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

My impression has been the opposite. People are under the impression that they changed a lot over time but are much more like their former selves than they are aware.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:24 PM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Huh. I just actually went last month and saw a band I also saw ten years ago, which was my favorite band at the time. I'm certain I paid more to see them again ten years later, and while the experience was different than it was ten years ago, I think both experiences were about equally valuable to me. I'm not sure they're still my favorite band, but I don't think I really have a favorite band right now, and haven't in a long time.

I mean, I think if I were given the opportunity to see most of the bands I liked ten years ago I'd still jump at the chance. I had good taste in music as a teenager, and I still have good taste in music now.

Ten years ago I expected to be dead within a decade (I was one of those teenagers who can't imagine being older than 25). That is demonstrably not the case. In ten years, I expect to be very different indeed, because I'm about to have a baby and I know lots of things in my life are about to change. I think this article is sort of hilariously wrong.
posted by town of cats at 1:47 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mankind has a natural desire to maintain a stable sense of self:
[M]an conceives a human character much more stable than his own, and sees that there is no reason why he should not himself acquire such a character. Thus he is led to seek for means which will bring him to this pitch of perfection, and calls everything which will serve as such means a true good. The chief good is that he should arrive, together with other individuals if possible, at the possession of the aforesaid character. What that character is we shall show in due time, namely, that it is the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature.--Spinoza / On the improvement of the intellect
Our society tends to undermine this desire, which makes the individual easier to manipulate. This study seems to want to assure us that it is a good thing to dissolve one's sense of self. Sure, we change. But change should be focused on becoming more fully ourselves.
posted by No Robots at 2:09 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

The political connection is fascinating, but it is also obviously wrong because the research shows that people with an "end of history" illusion do change.

People seem to be under the impression that if we got rid of this illusion, we'd change more. But I think it's more paradoxical: maybe we only change because of the illusion that we won't.

As you go through life, you encounter things that challenge your self-conception - this provokes a crisis, leading to growth and change. But without a stable self-conception, you are able to accommodate any future changes without any problems. Nothing changes because there is nothing to change.

So Fukuyama's End of History corresponds better to the lack of a fixed self. Capitalism plus liberal democracy allegedly allows maximum freedom and flexibility for individuals to endlessly reinvent themselves.
posted by AlsoMike at 2:17 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I *still* can't picture being much older than 25. Unfortunately, I'm now 42.
posted by webmutant at 2:19 PM on January 6, 2013 [22 favorites]

“Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,”

Maybe if you weren't awesome. I was an awesome teenager, and look back on him mostly with a mixture of daps and hi-fives.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:29 PM on January 6, 2013

Also I would be willing to spend pretty much any amount of money to see the Cramps play today :C
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:31 PM on January 6, 2013

“Believing that we just reached the peak of our personal evolution makes us feel good

I dunno if it's because I've got a sick 18 month old at home today, but goddamn do I feel that's not the case. I thought the passage of time and personal difficulties made you stronger, like working out. I think that sense peaked around 25. As I get older, I swear I'm getting less resilient and strong mentally. More fragile, more cautious, etc. Instead of the blows making me harder, they've fractured something I think.
posted by smoke at 2:44 PM on January 6, 2013 [6 favorites]

This runs completely counter to my private experience as well as my experience as a teacher.
When I was young, I imagined huge changes would happen in my life. When I was 35, I realized I was almost exactly the same as at 8 years old, and that was a problem I had to deal with.

On the positive side: Just the other day, reviewing a group of students preparing for their bachelors degree, I was fascinated to see how unchanged they were. Naturally, they were more skilled and had learned a lot of theory, but as individuals, they were present and untouched, in a good way.
posted by mumimor at 2:48 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Coldplay? That's pretty telling. Were the researchersall born in 1980?

I was a fan of U2 20 years ago, and today I consider them past their shelf-life, like the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Prince.

Instead of the blows making me harder, they've fractured something I think.

Totally. I'm significantly more embittered, but not clinically depressed.
posted by vhsiv at 2:52 PM on January 6, 2013

I've never expected to be anything, and I've never been disappointed in that lack of expectation. People who expect things from life are only making a rod for their own backs.
posted by Decani at 3:13 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been reading/hearing about this and it's been fascinating to me because it's almost an inversion of some of the recent personal introspection I've done.

For much of my early adult life -- maybe much of my adult life in general -- I imagined that I would be very different in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years.

But a few years ago, pushing 40 and reflecting on my life on new year's eve, I started thinking about that forward-looking assumption, and checked back to see if I thought it was true. And I realized the most surprising thing to me was how much I'm still like my much younger self.

This isn't to say that I haven't changed. I have entire skillsets and identifications and perspectives that weren't available to me then. I'm certainly less of some things and more of some others. And I do some things my 20 year old self might be aghast at or impatient with ... and a few he might be amazed at.

More similar than different, though. I think what I was doing when I was younger and anticipating big changes was looking at other adults of a certain age and assuming that when I got older, I would be like them (which, of course, is somewhat unlikely, given I was not them).

I suppose it's possible that I haven't grown up as much as I'm supposed to, or that I'm deceiving myself about what's actually changed, or I've so far avoided truly transforming experiences. I don't think that's it, though.
posted by weston at 3:33 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

For much of my early adult life -- maybe much of my adult life in general -- I imagined that I would be very different in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years.

I have clear memories of being aware of this as a 7 or 8 year old, which to me, made perfect sense. If I looked back four years from where I was then, I looked back with disdain: that girl couldn't read, and had barely gotten to the point of using a toilet successfully. As a kid, I was always very conscious of the fact that whatever I thought at a given moment might be rendered ridiculously childish by my future self. But then, I thought too much about those sorts of things.

The feeling's stuck with me in my current attitude towards a few things, though. Most notably, children. I'm 29, I don't want any right now, nor can I envision myself ever having any, but I can envision myself five or ten years down the road laughing hysterically at how much my opinion had changed on the matter.
posted by deludingmyself at 3:42 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Like Decani, I don't really expect to be or not be anything. But if we're talking about core personality traits, preferences, tendencies, at 51 I am in the most important ways precisely who I was at age 5, only far more self-protective. Gaining knowledge, skills, insight, and maturity, behaving somewhat differently, those are natural parts of growth and development, but they don't necessarily change your fundamental self. My identity might very well change radically in the next however-many years, but the first half-century doesn't provide much reason to think that.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:58 PM on January 6, 2013

at 51 I am in the most important ways precisely who I was at age 5

Everyone thinking this way needs to read up on Hindsight bias.
posted by smoke at 4:01 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Or Stewart, R.: I wish that I knew what I know now / When I was younger

I prefer Dylan:

"I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:03 PM on January 6, 2013

I think I assumed I'd change, but I really haven't much. It doesn't help that I still easily pass for a 16-year-old and didn't get married and have kids like everyone else. My daily life has not changed much at all since 2004. I can count on more than one hand the number of huge changes that have happened in my life since then, but I don't get too far along on hand #2. It's...kind of creepy how much I am still and always the same, really. Other than getting more burned out and cynical, but I was kinda like that in kindergarten already :P
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:57 PM on January 6, 2013

The person I was, the person I will be - these are not so important as the person I am.
posted by caddis at 7:26 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nobody wants to think they're degrading, so they must be improving!
posted by effugas at 8:32 PM on January 6, 2013

I’m surprised at all the people who say they haven’t changed. My younger self would have been horrified to see who I’ve become, and I feel only slighter better about who I was.
posted by bongo_x at 10:31 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is quite heartening; I think I'd be pretty depressed if I had to remain who I am now forever.

I am not yet the person I will become.
posted by Lucien Dark at 3:30 PM on January 8, 2013

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