It’s like déjà vu all over again. ~Yogi Berra
Yep. That’s me in my fabulous Nehru tux getting ready for my prom date. I was about as spiffy then as spiffy could be. The tux was rented, but I had my regular Nehrus in the closet. They were next to my bell-bottoms, tie-dyes and 8-tracks.
The Nehru went out of style around 11:55 p.m. the night of the prom and I had to hang on to my bell-bottoms and tie-dyes for about 30 years for them to come back around into fashion. The 8-tracks? They gave way to those newfangled cassettes.
How could I have been so wrong about the future of Nehrus and 8-tracks? Actually, when I think about it, I was wrong about a lot of things: The Afro perm I thought would look spectacular on me forever, the Beatles never breaking up, my best friend Kevin and I being pals for life, the Osborn 55-pound “portable” computer, and the 8-track tape player (which cost me a week’s salary) I had installed in my car. Naturally I thought my prom date would never change.
But in spite of my convictions at the time I was about as wrong as wrong could be. The good news is I am not alone.
Research recently reported on in the New York Times about a study on self-perception published in Science shows that individuals at every age and demographic make this kind of error: They call it the End of History Illusion because at each age we tend to underestimate the changes we will go through in the coming decade — even when we can point to all the changes we’ve been through in the last 10 years.
We think — somehow — that we have arrived at a more evolved plateau of being. We tend to think we are in a good enough place, perhaps even somewhat satisfied, and that things are not going to change that much. This builds on research that shows we do better at remembering who we were than predicting how much we will change. That brings us to the bad news.
I am (we are) about to do it all over again. Right now the chances are we are thinking the same thing about our future — we believe we are going to live, love and long for where, who, and what we are thinking about right now. But the research says it just ain’t so. This too is a transient state.
Professor Daniel Gilbert and postdoctoral fellow Jordi Quoidbach of Harvard and Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia studied over 19,000 participants ranging in age from 18 to 68 in an online questionnaire. Each phase of life group underestimates how much they are likely to change in the coming decade. In other words, the research demonstrated that at every age we describe more changes in the past 10 years than we would have predicted a decade ago.
According to Gilbert, “What these data suggest, and what scads of other data from our lab and others suggest, is that people really aren’t very good at knowing who they’re going to be and hence what they’re going to want a decade from now.”
How could this be? Mounting evidence indicates that we are influenced by what is happening to us now to the point that it creates a distortion of what we want and what will make us happy in the future. These findings were made popular by Daniel Gilbert’s bestselling book Stumbling on Happiness . He noted that there is a cognitive bias as to what makes us happy. This bias makes us predict very poorly what will make us happy in the future.
It is a hard pill to swallow. But the fact remains that we tend to make systematic mistakes about what is going to make us happy downstream. The advice? Don’t imagine your future. Use others’ experience to chart your course. We have lots of data about what people experience in different life stages. This is a more realistic guide to how you are going to feel once you have those experiences – not your own imagination of what it will be like. (In other words, hold off on that tattoo you were thinking of getting until you talk to someone who has had one for a while.)
Or you can simply remember the words of Yogi Berra: The future ain’t what it used to be.
Quoidbach J., Gilbert, D.T., and Wilson, T.D. The End of History Illusion. Science 4 January 2013: 96-98. [DOI:10.1126/science.1229294]