Study Shows Our Self Image Doesn't Change When We Look Ahead To The Future
January 4, 2013

Study Shows Our Self Image Doesn’t Change When We Look Ahead To The Future

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Each New Year many of us take a look back at the year before and reflect on how we have changed. While we don´t change much over the course of a year, try looking back ten years. It is safe to say that many of us have changed a lot over the past decade. Now take a look into the future. What will you be like in ten years?

It´s likely that most people view themselves the same in a decade as they are now–albeit with a few characteristic differences: a few more wrinkles, a little less hair. But when people look back again over the past decade, most see that their interests, life values, morals, and ambitions have changed, often for the better.

So it is kind of strange that when we look back and see how much we have changed, we generally tend to not put that into perspective when looking ahead. A new study from Harvard and University of Virginia finds that most people tend to see themselves the same way in ten years, regardless of how much they have changed over the past ten years.

The team of psychologists says that most people, when they peer through the looking glass, view themselves as having the same personality traits, best friends and favorite things. They note, however, that people of all ages routinely underestimate the amount they will change over the course of a decade. These people seem to suffer from the delusion that the person they have become will be the real and final version of themselves. Researchers call this the “end of history illusion.”

Study coauthor Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard, says: “I have to tell you that never in my wildest dreams when I had a long ponytail and was hitchhiking around the country and playing my guitar did it occur to me that my greatest joy would be sitting next to the love of my life, eating dinner on a TV tray, and watching ℠Jeopardy!´”

“But now I´m the guy who does that, and I know with great confidence,” he adds in jest, “I will never change.”

Gilbert and his colleagues found that people are much better at reporting how they have changed over the past ten years than they are at predicting how they would change in the next ten.

Their study, published in the journal Science, took a look at 19,000 people ranging in age from 18 to 68 years old. The answers from this study population gave the study team a realization that people not only underestimate how much they will change, but often use such information to make bad decisions, such as investing too much in a present-day preference assuming that it will remain true in the future.

The personality assessment survey asked participants to report either how they would have answered the questions a decade earlier, or predict how they would answer a decade later. Then, the researchers decided to use the answers and compare them with answers of those either ten years older or ten years younger. For example: 18-year-olds´ predictions of their future were compared with 28-year-olds´ reports of how much they have changed.

The team members found that at every age, people predicted less change than had actually been reported by those 10 years older, suggesting they were underestimating how much change would likely be in store for them.

In a second phase of the study, the researchers used a personality survey of close to 4,000 adults taken a decade apart. The team found the rate of actual personality change was very similar to how much change participants reported when looking back ten years. But was significantly more change than people predicted when looking forward.

One implication of the study results shows that making long-term decisions, such as buying a home or taking a new job based on our current values in life, might just lead us astray. When people in the survey had been asked about a much less significant decision, such as how much they would pay for a ticket to see their favorite band in ten years, most people were willing to pay $50 dollars more than people would pay to see their favorite band of a decade ago perform now.

Gilbert says a study he published three years ago, also in the journal Science, may answer a question of how we make choices with lasting repercussions. In that paper, Gilbert and his then colleagues found that people make better decisions when they were informed by others´ experiences.

In an example, Gilbert says women who were asked to predict how much they would enjoy a speed date with a man, based their predictions either on a report of how much other women enjoyed a speed date with that man, or a comprehensive profile of the man himself.

More women predicted they would make a better choice when they had all the details about a particular man, but in fact, most did better when they made predictions based on others´ experiences.

Gilbert notes that making a decision about your future self may be easier if you look at people 10 years older than you are now and follow their lead.

While the study was done well, Margie Lachman, a psychology professor at Brandeis University who studies adult development, said some of the results surprised her.

She has done similar research and has found that people often tend to overestimate both how much they have changed and will change. Part of this revolves around our insecurities and our urge to see that we have improved and hope for more in the future.

“If you look back, adults are thinking they´ve grown and improved and progressed over the 10 years,” Lachman told the Boston Globe´s Carolyn Johnson. “People would be disappointed to think one hasn´t experienced growth.”

Mike Ross, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, said he believes the study "leads to more questions than answers, but the questions it leads to I think are very interesting."

Ross, who was not involved in the new study, told Karen Weintraub at USA Today that the findings made him wonder whether people who are dissatisfied with their current life make the same errors when predicting their future. Perhaps they are more likely to expect changes down the road because they want those changes to happen.

He also questioned whether the illusion that all of our changes are in the past is a problem. "I'm not sure that it is."

Even though the survey participants expected life to stay the same, they were obviously open to change because they reported having changed, Ross said.

Gilbert acknowledges that he is just speculating why people underestimate how much they are going to change in ten years. But that does not contradict the fact that they will.

"When people look back on a particular decade, do they remember more change than they predict (for the next decade)? The answer is yes," Gilbert adds.

The researchers looked at characteristics that people, including Gilbert himself, think are more fixed.

“I´m a middle-aged man and when I sit around talking with other middle-aged people, we talk about how we are different than when we were young,” Gilbert says. “What we never do is imagine in the future that we will be smiling knowingly at our naivete.”