Life is full of decisions, many of which will impact our lives far into the future…everything from whether to apply for a mortgage and choosing where to live…to whom to marry and how many children we wish to have…all of these involve various long-term commitments.
According to a team of psychologists, these decisions are based upon one fundamental — but nearly universally wrong — assumption: that you know the person you are going to be, ten or more years in the future.
Teenagers are notorious for their lack of foresight in decision making (largely due to what’s known as ‘developmental asymmetry’ in brain growth), but according to a series of new studies, older folks greatly underestimate how much they will change in the future; their predictions about their ‘future selves’ (from personal tastes to willingness to spend money) were often significantly underestimated.
The Experiments – Your Past and Future Self
The new research, conducted by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert along with post doc Jordi Quoidbach and University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson, involved a series of on-line experiments with some 19,000 participants between the ages of 18 and 68.
In the first such experiment, participants were given a personality assessment questionnaire in which they scored themselves on traits like extraversion (one’s “outgoingness”), emotional stability and “openness to new experiences”. They were then told to repeat the assessment but this time to answer the questions as they thought they would have answered ten years ago, or, ten years in the future.
On average, and regardless of age, people tended to believe they had changed more in the past ten years than they would in the coming ten years. This makes a certain obvious sense; our brains have memories of our personal history to compare our present self with, while picturing any ‘future self’ involves projecting and imagining one’s life not yet lived.
Indeed, the psychologists found that this underestimation was not due to a failure of accurately remembering the past, but rather, an inability to predict the future.
Researchers found it surprising that even older, more life-experienced persons tended to underestimate how much they will change. For example, 58 year old participants predicted very little change in their lives in the coming decade, even while they had noted significant personal change in the previous decade.
The End of (Personal Change) History?
The researchers termed this tendency to underestimate future personal change as “the end of history illusion” because their results suggested that people believe that the present marks the point in which they have finally stopped changing.
In follow up surveys, the researchers found that people also tend to underestimate how much their personal values — like “success” and “security” — will change in the future. This holds even for personal references like who they will consider their best friend or even their favorite band.
“What these data suggest, and what scads of other data from our lab and others suggest, is that people really aren’t very good at knowing who they’re going to be and hence what they’re going to want a decade from now,” stated Gilbert, in a Science NOW interview.
This innate, or unconscious, bias can have significant impact on our financial decisions.
In a last experiment, the team asked some participants how much they would pay in 2012 (the year of the experiments) to see their favorite band in 2022, while others were asked how much they would pay to see their favorite band from 2002 play a concert in the coming week.
On average, people were willing to pay 61% more to see the future concert with their current favorite band than people who were ten years older would pay to see the past favorite band (from 2002) play in the present (here, 2012). One might suppose that middle aged folks would be wise enough to know that their current favorite band will not be the favorite band ten years from now, but instead, the researchers found that “participants substantially overpaid for a future opportunity to indulge a current preference.”
Quoting from the paper abstract:
‘People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives. This “end of history illusion” had practical consequences, leading people to overpay for future opportunities to indulge their current preferences’
Other Experts Weigh in on the Experimental Results
Other experts in the field believe that this new research reveals how a common intuition (about the self) is wrong — that people tend to believe that they have changed more than they will change. This is true despite that fact that people don’t generally have this belief about others or the world in which they live(i.e., they accept and predict that others, and the world, will change).
But at least one other researcher has doubts about this so-called “end of history illusion”. Yale University psychologist Shane Frederick, who conducted a similar (though smaller size) study in 2003, believes that people might well anticipate future changes but, not knowing how they would change makes them more likely to predict the status quo. Frederick’s study found similar underestimations of future change, but, he asserts, this might be the result of people having an understandable “reluctance to predict what is unknowable.”
Learning to Make Better Self Predictions
But this does not mean that people can’t anticipate future change and make better informed decisions.
Previous research by Gilbert et al found that people make more accurate predictions about their reaction to a future event* when they know how others have reacted to it previously.
According to Gilbert:
“The single best way to make predictions about what you’re going to want in the future isn’t to imagine yourself in the future, … it’s to look at other people who are in the very future you’re imagining,”
An important factor that determines, or motivates, a person’s future change of values — specifically, in regards to concern for the environment — is reminders of one’s mortality.
* This would be a nearly universal future event, such as death of one’s parents, or one’s children leaving home, or having children of their own
Top Photo: Arkady via Shutterstock.com