Your Essential Self

January 10th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

How different do you think you’ll be 10 years from now?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

If you often tell yourself that you wish you’d known 10 years ago what you know now, you’re a lot like the rest of us, according to new research from Harvard University.

The study, published in the journal Science, suggests that no matter how old people are, they seem to believe that who they are today is essentially who they’ll be tomorrow. The researchers call this phenomenon the “end of history illusion,” in which people tend to underestimate how much they will change in the future.

Their research, which surveyed more than 19,000 people age 18 to 68, indicated that the illusion lasts from youth into old age. Surveys within this study included questions about personality traits, core values and preferences. Some people were asked to reflect on how they had changed over the past 10 years, and others were asked to make predictions on the future. The overwhelming majority of people, Harvard psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert told NPR, didn’t recognize how much their “seemingly essential selves” would shift and grow. “We’re able to determine whether, for example, 40-year-olds looking backwards remember changing more than 30-year-olds looking forward predict that they will change,” he explained. Younger people in the study reported more change in the previous decade than older people, but people of all ages downplayed forward-looking ideas about how they might change.

Middle-aged people often look back on their teenage selves with amusement and chagrin, Gilbert told the New York Times. “What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.” 

As to why we do this, the authors put forth some possible explanations: Believing that we have reached a stable value and preference state is comforting, while realizing how transient those qualities are can lead to anxiety; and predicting the future may just take more mental energy than recalling the past. 

In considering the end of history phenomenon, think about your own personal values and how they have changed. For one, do you feel you are more responsible today than you were 10 years ago? (And do you have a difficult time imagining how your attitude toward responsibility might change in the next decade?) Does the end of history illusion jibe with your own experience, and how can it be used to help people evolve and grow in their thinking?