Think People Don't Change? Think Again.
Tis the season of scrapped New Year’s resolutions. But while we’re busy feeling bad about how quickly we’ve jumped ship on the new person we were set on becoming in 2013, we can take heart in knowing that we will likely change more than we think. In fact, our future selves will bear little resemblance to what we imagine of them.
So says a team of researchers from Harvard and the University of Virginia, who reported on Thursday on a phenomenon they call the “end of history illusion,” in which people can easily look back on their past lives and see how much they’ve changed but can’t imagine the same metamorphoses into the future.
According to Daniel T. Gilbert, one of the study’s authors, quoted in The New York Times:
“Middle-aged people—like me—often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin. 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.”
The study involved more than 19,000 people between the ages of 18 and 68. Researchers asked them about their personalities and preferences now and in the past, then asked what they thought they would be in the future. People overwhelmingly downplayed any potential change in the future, even though the changes from past to present had been dramatic. No matter their age, they seemed to think the major life changes had already happened—that their lives were fully cooked.
Of course, believing that all our major transformation is in the past can lead to errors in prediction. That tattoo that looks so smoking hot in your twenties doesn’t have the same je ne sais quois across forty-something skin. And let’s just say it’s a good thing most of us don’t marry our high school prom dates. There’s also the risk of the double-whammy: a guy who gets a tattoo that memorializes his prom date.
But why don’t we see this in the moment?
That question is still open to debate. Possible explanations include lack of imagination, laziness, or my personal favorite: our desire to think we’re pretty great just the way we are. Researchers say that feeling as if we’ve hit our stride, that we’ve completed the heavy lifting of life, makes us feel good about ourselves. They say that knowing how radically different we’ll be in the future could cause anxiety. But a little anxiety might not be so bad. After all, it’s better than a tattoo you may live to regret.