Why Living In The Present Is Actually A Terrible Idea

“Every person, if he so wills, can become a paradigmatic human being, not by brushing of his accidental qualities, but by remaining in them and ennobling them. He ennobles them by choosing them.” —Soren Kierkegaard

In A Nutshell

According to researchers from Harvard and Virginia Universities, all of mankind is laboring under a sort of species-wide blind spot. We’re well aware that we’ve changed and evolved as individuals throughout our lives, but we’re almost completely incapable of realizing that in the future, we’ll be changing just as much. This denial of future change is likely a major contributing factor when it comes to making poor decisions that hurt us in the long run, and being aware of it can at least help us make those decisions a little bit better.

The Whole Bushel

If I’d only known then what I know now . . . 

How many times have we said that about our younger selves? When we look back at who we were 10 or 15 years ago, we tend to admit (sometimes grudgingly), that we’ve changed quite a bit. Whether we’ve graduated college, started a family or embarked on a new career, chances are we can look back and reminisce—or at least laugh at—the person that we were.

In other words, we’re aware of how we change and grow as a person, but strangely, it only seems to work in retrospect.

When social psychologists wanted to find that moment when each of us become the person that we really, truly are, they found that the answer is always “right now.” With a sample group of more than 19,000 people, they took a look at how everyone’s personalities, likes and dislikes, and opinions changed over the arc of their lives so far—and then asked them to estimate what would happen to their personalities in the future.

They found that no matter how old they were, the pattern was the same. People were able to see that they changed over the course of their lives, but overwhelmingly predicted that 10, 15, or 20 years into the future, they were going to be pretty much the same person they were at that moment.

The people polled ranged in age from 18 to 68, and they were asked everything from what they thought of the evolution in their taste of music to what kinds of friends they chose. Almost across the board, no matter what age group they were in, people believed that they were in their watershed moment, where they had finally reached the pinnacle of their personal evolution (or pretty close to it).

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It’s a pretty odd phenomenon with some pretty staggering consequences, and it explains a lot about why we do the things that we do. When we’re faced with a pretty permanent choice, we think that how we feel about it in the moment is how we’re going to feel about it down the road. Take getting a tattoo, for instance. Most of us choose something that’s meaningful in that moment, assuming that its going to hold onto its appeal.

And we do it all in the face of some pretty blatant clues that that’s not the case. We can see the pattern in our past, but we’re completely unable to project that into the future.

It’s called the “end of history” illusion, and researchers from Harvard and Virginia Universities have suggested that this is why we make many of the mistakes that we do. We’re simply not accounting for the fact that we’re going to change as much in the future as we did in the past—no matter what age we are—and that’s all there is to it.

The past is in the past, but we think of the future as simply more of the present.

Researchers are still trying to decide just what to do with this information, but it’s possible that just being aware of this massive blind spot that seems to exist in all of humankind across the board might make us look differently at some of the choices we make in our lives.

Show Me The Proof

“The End of History Illusion,” by Quoidbach, Gilbert, and Wilson
Psychology Today: On the End of History Illusion
The Guardian: This column will change your life: the end-of-history illusion

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