Menus Subscribe Search

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

August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


Follow us


How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

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