By the time commuter train started its operation, people thought they would never supersede horses. And about a century later, many people including experts made the same prognostication about telephones, car, and computers and so on. They were all wrong. What’s going on?
Of course, we can’t tell exactly what the future holds, or predict what sort of innovations or inventions the future has for us. Also frequently often, we fail to foresee how the current state of technological development will shape the future. This pattern has been observed in individual lives in a recent study. It revealed that although people see the changes as they happen, they fail to predict that the change will continue.
In a 2013 paper “The End Of History Illusion” published in the journal Science, three psychologists documented that people, regardless of their ages, are unable to predict change in their personalities and preferences as they transition towards the adulthood. The title of the paper came from political scientist Francis Fukuyama after his prediction that “liberal democracy was the final form of government,” or as he called it, “the end of history.” The paper highlights the way individual of all ages think the person they are now is the final version of themselves, and that they won’t change in the future.
For the study, researchers surveyed over 7000 individuals between the ages 18 and 68. They asked half of them to recall their personality traits, preferences and values ten years ago and compare each of those metrics with their present states. Then they asked the other remaining half of the participants to describe their current personality, their tastes and values and to estimate their expected changes in the next ten years.
The researchers then measured how each of the participants had changed based on what they all reported and predicted. In every age group, they compared the changes the participants predicted to the changes they reported. So they asked 18-year-olds what they thought would change in the next 10 years and 28-year-olds what had changed in the last 10 years, and compared their degree of changes.
Researchers found that their future estimates of change barely matched up with the chances the older counterparts reported. 20-year-old individuals thought they would still like the same food at 30, but 30-year-old individuals no longer enjoyed having the food they once liked when they were 20. 30 year olds predicted having the same best friend at 40, but 40 years old were no longer in touched with theirs. And 40 year olds expected to maintain the same core values when they turn 50, but 50 year olds did not.
They also found that the degree of changes in older people was much lesser compared to younger people, but they hardly recognised the changes just the same. So in every stage of life, the end of history illusion persists: although we notice our perceptions have changed, we tend to think that our perception will stay the same in years to come. One practical consequence of the end of history illusion is that it led people to overpay for future opportunities based on their current preferences.
For example, we would be willing to spend more to see our current favorite band perform ten years in the future than we would want to spend to see our once-favorite band perform in the present. Likewise, in more serious commitments like owning a house, looking for partners and searching for jobs, we may make similar miscalculations.
There’s no definitive study that validates the cause of the end of history illusion yet. But researchers believe resistance to or fear of change maybe the reason. Moreover in a 2014 TED Talk “The psychology of your future self,” psychologist Dan Gilbert speculates difficulty of predicting change and how we perceive time in general may also play a role.
At present, there is no way we could predict our preferences for the future. But the significance of the end of history illusion is immense, and without it we would hardly be able to make any long-term plans.
So, it is clear that the end of history illusion applies to our individual lives, but does it apply to the wider world? Of course, it does and there are plenty of records. The world and everyone around you keep changing for the better as we journey through the future.