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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.

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