The “End of History” Illusion by Bence Nanay (TED ed). When trains began to shuttle people across the coutryside, many insisted they would never replace horses.
Less than a century later, people repeated that same prediction about cars, telephones, radio, television, and computers. Each had their own host of detractors. Even some experts insisted they wouldn’t catch on.
Of course, we can’t predict exactly what the future will look like or what new inventions will populate it. But time and time again, we’ve also failed to predict that the technologies of the present will change the future. And recent research has revealed a similar pattern in our individual lives: we’re unable to predict change in ourselves.
Three psychologists documented our inability to predict personal change in a 2013 paper called, “The End of History Illusion.” Named after political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s prediction that liberal democracy was the final form of government, or as he called it, “the end of history,” their work highlights the way we see ourselves as finished products at any given moment.
The researchers recruited over 7,000 participants ages 18 to 68. They asked half of these participants to report their current personality traits, values, and preferences, along with what each of those metrics had been ten years before. The other half described those features in their present selves, and predicted what they would be ten years in the future.
Based on these answers, the researchers then calculated the degree of change each participant reported or predicted. For every age group in the sample, they compared the predicted changes to the reported changes. So they compared the degree to which 18-year-olds thought they would change to the degree to which 28-year-olds reported they had changed.
Overwhelmingly, at all ages, people’s future estimates of change came up short compared to the changes their older counterparts recalled. 20-year-olds expected to still like the same foods at 30, but 30-year-olds no longer had the same tastes. 30-year-olds predicted they’d still have the same best friend at 40, but 40-year-olds had lost touch with theirs.
And 40-year-olds predicted they’d maintain the same core values that 50-year-olds had reconsidered. While older people changed less than younger people on the whole, they underestimated their capacity for change just as much. Wherever we are in life, the end of history illusion persists: we tend to think that the bulk of our personal change is behind us.
One consequence of this thinking is that we’re inclined to overinvest in future choices based on present preferences. On average, people are willing to pay about 60% more to see their current favorite musician ten years in the future than they’d currently pay to see their favorite musician from ten years ago.
While the stakes involved in concert-going are low, we’re susceptible to similar miscalculations in more serious commitments, like homes, partners, and jobs. At the same time, there’s no real way to predict what our preferences will be in the future.
Without the end of history Illusion, it would be difficult to make any long-term plans. So the end of history illusion applies to our individual lives, but what about the wider world? Could we be assuming that how things are now is how they will continue to be? If so, fortunately, there are countless records to remind us that the world does change, sometimes for the better. Our own historical moment isn’t the end of history, and that can be just as much a source of comfort as a cause for concern.
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Credit: Bence Nanay – TED ed