C&B Notes

Underestimating Change

A new psychology study reports that people underestimate how much their tastes, preferences, and overall personality will change in the future.  We suspect that people’s bias to anticipate less change than actually occurs extends into arenas beyond basic self-expectations.

They called this phenomenon the “end of history illusion,” in which people tend to “underestimate how much they will change in the future.”  According to their research, which involved more than 19,000 people ages 18 to 68, the illusion persists from teenage years into retirement.

“Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,” said one of the authors, Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard. “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.”

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Participants were asked about their personality traits and preferences — their favorite foods, vacations, hobbies and bands — in years past and present, and then asked to make predictions for the future.  Not surprisingly, the younger people in the study reported more change in the previous decade than did the older respondents.  But when asked to predict what their personalities and tastes would be like in 10 years, people of all ages consistently played down the potential changes ahead.  Thus, the typical 20-year-old woman’s predictions for her next decade were not nearly as radical as the typical 30-year-old woman’s recollection of how much she had changed in her 20s.  This sort of discrepancy persisted among respondents all the way into their 60s.

And the discrepancy did not seem to be because of faulty memories, because the personality changes recalled by people jibed quite well with independent research charting how personality traits shift with age.  People seemed to be much better at recalling their former selves than at imagining how much they would change in the future.