Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ronald Cole-Turner: Transcending Evolution - Past and Future Selves

This brief article comes from the Metanexus blog. The author looks at new research that suggests people can see that they have changed over the last ten years, but at the same time they assume they will change little in the next ten years. People seem to believe they will stay as they are in this moment for the remainder of their lives. Or was it this moment, or this one . . . .

Full citation and abstract:
The End of History Illusion

Jordi Quoidbach
Daniel T. Gilbert
Timothy D. Wilson


We measured the personalities, values, and preferences of more than 19,000 people who ranged in age from 18 to 68 and asked them to report how much they had changed in the past decade and/or to predict how much they would change in the next decade. Young people, middle-aged people, and older people all believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future. People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives. This “end of history illusion” had practical consequences, leading people to overpay for future opportunities to indulge their current preferences.
Jordi Quoidbach, J, Gilbert, DT, and Wilson, TD. (2013, Jan 4). The end of history illusion. Science, Vol. 339 no. 6115; pp. 96-98. DOI: 10.1126/science.1229294

Here is the summary:

Ronald Cole-Turner: Transcending Evolution

Past and Future Selves
January 15, 2013

Are you done changing? Are your values and personality pretty much set for life? Regardless of our age, most of us seem to think so.

According to new research, people generally recognize that they have changed over the past decade. But in the decade ahead? Overwhelmingly, people think their biggest changes are behind them. It’s as if their present state is the defining moment, when values and personality traits are fully realized and fixed forever. The research team, led by Jordi Quoidbach, called this the “End of History Illusion.”

In six studies involving more than 19,000 participants, researchers “found consistent evidence to indicate that people underestimate how much they will change in the future,” according to the study appearing in the January 4 issue of the journal Science. Like most illusions, this one comes with a big cost. Thinking they won’t change makes it more likely they will “make decisions that their future selves regret.”

What’s most amazing about this illusion is that it seems to hold true at all ages. In fact, some of the results suggested that more than their grandparents, young people think they are done changing. This much, at least, was clear to the researchers: “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. History, it seems, is always ending today.”

While the researchers are clearly speaking of the history of the individual, their research raises the question of whether there’s a similar illusion when it comes to human history. For example, do we routinely underestimate the amount of technological change that lies ahead or its cultural and social impact? We acknowledge the profound cultural changes in past decades, but do we underestimate what is coming?

We marvel at the transformations of human evolution, but do we fail to imagine the changes that lie ahead? According to the researchers, "people may confuse the difficulty of imagining personal change with the unlikelihood of change itself." If that is true of the human individual, might it also be true of the human species?

A version of this post first appeared on Enhancing Theology.
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