Why your future self will be more different than you think

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Every minute of every day, we make decisions that will affect our future selves—a truth that would be too obvious to mention except for the fact that as it turns out, we are not very good at predicting what our future selves will be like.

We are inept, for instance, at predicting our future happiness. In fact, our ability to predict our future emotional states at all—what psychologists call “affective forecasting”—is minimal. We expect, for instance, that a positive event like winning the lottery will leave us happy for years to come, whereas a negative event like becoming paralyzed will devastate us permanently. But a study found that just a year after the event, people who’d won the lottery were only marginally happier than people who’d been left paralyzed by an accident[1].

It’s not just future emotions that give us trouble; we’re also bad at predicting our future personalities, values, and preferences. In one study, researchers surveyed more than 19,000 people, asking them questions about their personalities, their values, and their their favorite foods, vacation spots, music, and hobbies[2].

Some participants were asked how much these things had changed in the 10 years prior. Others were asked to predict how they thought they would change in the following 10 years. The study found that people of all ages drastically underestimate the degree to which they’ll change in the future. Young people do change faster than older people, but the rate of change doesn’t show nearly as much as people expect.

In other words, we privilege the current moment in time—believing—wrongly, that we have finally, for the first time, reached the peak of our evolution and that we won’t change much from here on in. In the words of Dan Gilbert, one of the study’s authors, “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.” We’re subject to the illusion, Gilbert explains, “that we have just recently become the people that we were always meant to be and will be for the rest of our lives”[3].

This illusion—which the researchers call the “end of history illusion”—carries significant costs: we routinely make decisions that our future selves regret. As a result, we get divorced, get tattoos removed, and spend years digging ourselves out of the debts our past selves incurred.

If the end of history illusion is inherent to the way we think, is there a way we can think our way out of it? One solution is to look back at the past, suggests Nicholas Epley, a psychology researcher at the University of Chicago. If you look back at the last 10 years and realize how much you’ve changed as a person, it might help you recognize how much you’re likely to change in the years to come[4].

?References

1. Ayton, P., Alice P., Elwakili, N. (2007). Affective forecasting: Why can’t people predict their emotions? Thinking & Reasoning, 13, 62–80.
2. Quoidbach, J., Gilbert, D., & Wilson, T. (2013). The end of history illusion. Science, 339, 96-98.
3. Gilbert, D. (2016). The psychology of your future self. Ted.com.
4. Greenfieldboyce, N. (January, 2013). You can’t see it, but you’ll be a different person in 10 years. (2013). All things considered, NPR.