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.
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.”