The "End Of History Illusion" - Why We Like Change, As Long As It's In The Past

A new Swiss study helps explain why we think that our important changes are behind us -- and how this false belief can drive us to make poor decisions.

Don't look back in anger, a change is gonna come...
Don't look back in anger, a change is gonna come...
Etienne Dubuis

LAUSANNE – Most people believe they have changed a lot in the past, but will change very little in the future. We are convinced that we will be the same in ten years as we are today. This “End of History Illusion,” as an international team of psychology researchers called it, has many consequences, including the tendency to push people to make poor decisions.

To study the phenomenon, the team of researchers surveyed 19,000 people aged 18 to 68. They were asked to reflect on how much they had changed over the past ten years, and to predict how much they would change over the next ten years. They then compared the predictions of those aged “x years” to the reports of people aged “x + 10 years.” This allowed researchers to compare predictions and reports in about 40 age brackets: 18-28, 19-29, 20-30…. To 58-68.

In their two first studies, the researchers tried to be as wide-ranging as possible in their questions, asking people about personality and core values. The first thing they found is that the older the participants were, the less personality change they reported or predicted. The second thing they discovered is that people aged x predicted they would change less over the next ten years than reporters aged x + 10 said they had changed over the same decade.

The study's full findings have been published in Science magazine.

Did the wide-ranging – and therefore abstract – questions affect the answers? Maybe they did. To make sure this wasn’t the case, the researchers carried out a third study using more specific questions. Instead of asking people about how extroverted they were or how much they valued honesty, they asked them to remember the name of their best friend or their favorite band. They had to assess if they still liked the same things they liked 10 years ago, and if they thought they would still like them 10 years from now.

Same best friend; same band – the third study only confirmed the results of the first two. It also corroborated the idea that we are less and less aware of change as we grow older and that we remember more change than we predict.

The issue isn’t simply theoretical. It’s also practical, since we often take decisions according to what future we have planned for ourselves. This study reveals that because of this, we regularly make mistakes, which are rarely without consequences.

To show this, the researchers conducted a fourth and final study interviewing 170 adults aged between 18 and 64. Some participants were asked how much they would be willing to pay to see their favorite bands perform in ten years – this was the “future concert” group. Another group, the “present concert” group, was asked to name their favorite band from 10 years ago and how much they would be willing to pay to see them perform in the coming week. However old they were, the first group was always willing to pay more than the second group – 61% more on average. People overpaid for a future concert with a band they like now, which shows how we underestimate our capacity for change, and how this affects our decision-making.

The possibility of future change

Why is change so difficult to predict? There is at least one major difference between prediction and retrospection, say the authors of the study. Prediction is a constructive process whereas retrospection is more of a reconstructive process. “If people find it difficult to imagine the ways in which their traits, values, or preferences will change in the future, they may assume that such changes are unlikely. In short, people may confuse the difficulty of imagining personal change with the unlikelihood of change itself,” says the study.

A second reason might explain this phenomenon. “Most people believe that their personalities are attractive, their values admirable, and their preferences wise and having reached that exalted state, they may be reluctant to entertain the possibility of change. People also like to believe that they know themselves well, and the possibility of future change may threaten that belief,” says the study.

“In general, stability has a rather positive connotation compared to change,” explains Alain Clemence, professor in social psychology at the University of Lausanne. “Stability is associated with a strong personality and personal balance. Past changes are usually considered beneficial because they have led us to where we are now and we usually have a rather positive opinion of our current personality."

But Clemence notes that changes in the future are much more difficult to imagine because they require a departure from the habits that we’ve grown accustomed to. "This helps explain why homeless people living in terrible conditions refuse help," he said. "They prefer to stay in the mental comfort that routine brings than the physical comfort that is offered to them.”

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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