Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Tyranny of Today: Not Who You Were, Nor Who You’ll Be

• January 11, 2013 • 3:22 PM

Making sense of who we were, and who we’re likely to become.

“Nothing endures but change,” mused Heraclitus, the fifth-century b.c.e. philosopher. (The same sage who, according to Plato, said that you could never step into the same river twice—it’s always a different river, and you’re always a different you.) We learn this lesson, if painfully, sometime in middle school, when the first dog dies, teenage love goes unrequited, or divorce divides the dinner table. The earth shifts, threatens to swallow us up, but soon enough there’s a new beagle, a new Emily, a new normal—Thanksgiving at mom’s house, Christmas at dad’s.

Despite life’s constant ebb and flow, we humans are notoriously bad at stitching together who we were, are, and will become. “Young adults pay to remove the tattoos that teenagers paid to get, middle-aged adults rush to divorce the people whom young adults rushed to marry, and older adults visit health spas to lose what middle-aged adults visited restaurants to gain,” write a trio of psychologists this month in Science. “Why do people so often make decisions that their future selves regret?”

The short answer is, because while we have no trouble observing self-change in the past, we’re miserable at predicting it in the future. In other words, the 2003-version of you is barely recognizable in 2013—so young, so foolish! That haircut, that boyfriend!—but you expect to be more-or-less the same person in 2023 as you are today. We cringe at the tattoo designs our 2003-self thought were cool, but can’t imagine our 2023-self feeling the same way as we settle into the chair at The Ink Parlor.

The psychologists, led by Belgian Jordi Quoidbach, call this “tendency to underestimate the magnitude of future change the ‘end of history illusion.’ ”

In a series of six cleverly designed experiments, the researchers asked some 19,000 Americans, aged 18 to 68, to reflect on perceptions of self—past, present, and future. They asked about both mutable traits (favorite band, best friend) and intrinsic ones (ideals, principles). One cohort was even asked to give their past or future selves a personality test: how extroverted were they at 25? How extroverted would they be at 45?

The psychologists then compared how much people expected to change in ten years’ time with how much they had changed in the past decade.

The average 40-year-old estimated that, in the next ten years, not much would change: she’d like the same music and hold the same values at 50 as she did today. In contrast, most 50-year-olds reported that—um, duh—of course they liked different singers and had different priorities today than they did a decade ago. The “I’m Done Changing Now” Fallacy persisted across every generation, from kids who weren’t yet old enough to drink to AARP members, thought its effect lessened among older folks.

In one novel experiment, the psychologists asked subjects to decide how much they’d pay to see (a) their current favorite band, if the concert were held in ten years’ time, or (b) their favorite band of a decade ago, if the concert were next week. The results were striking: the average American would shell out $129 to see Rihanna or Mumford & Sons in 2023, but just $80 to see Nickelback or Ashanti—Billboard’s 2002 top hit-makers—next week. (Actually, there are a disturbing number of Americans who’d still pay $129 to see Nickelback tomorrow, a phenomenon that, in this author’s opinion, deserves some real attention from abnormal psychologists.)

So why do we struggle to acknowledge that our minds, like our bodies, are forever changing? The psychologists surmise that “most people believe that their personalities are attractive, their values admirable, and their preferences wise.” In other words, “having reached that exalted state,” who’d want to change? At the same time, “reconstructing” the past is always easier than “constructing” the future, so when you have difficulty conjuring up a band you might someday prefer to Nickelback, you simply assume that you’ll worship at the altar of Chad Kroeger forever.

Conclude the authors, “Both teenagers and grandparents seem to believe that the pace of personal change has slowed to a crawl and that they have recently become the people they will remain.”

It’s a miracle that they, and we, are wrong.

Kevin Charles Redmon
Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and critic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

More From Kevin Charles Redmon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.