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Self Perception, Past and Future

Last up, we looked at recent research published in the Journal of Science. A team of psychologist found that people tend to underestimate how much they’ll change in the future. John Tierney joins us now for the Time’s science desk. Hi John. Hi Louise.

Ok, so explain to us this study, which came out in the Journal yesterday by some researchers at Harvard and UVA. What did they find?

They found out that the people are pretty accurately when they look back over the past decade, and they surveyed like 19,000 people between the ages of 18 and 68, so they had a huge range of people. They found most people when they look back… that a 30 year old woman when she look back at her twenties… she accurately remembers that she did change a lot, that her personality changed, some of her values changed and her preferences changed. They asked about this.

She doesn’t like this rock band she used to like.

Exactly and some of her clothes have changed, her friends might have… her best friend, they asked about that…what kind of food you like. That sort of thing. So people accurately realize that they changed in the past but then when they asked them to predict what is it gonna be like in the next 10 years for you. Everybody and no matter what your age, underestimated how much they were gonna change. They kind of assume that I’ve reached the state of wonderfulness right now, I’m not gonna change that much. Now, obviously young people do change more than older people but you know this end of history illusion as they called… you find it in every age.

So basically, you know a 50 year old, you know looking forward to when they’d be 60 thought they would be not much different but a 60 year old looking back at when they were 50, the gap was much bigger.

You know, they have different friends, they have different values. You know I like to do different things. So why…are there any theories on why people can see backwards but not forwards?

There are various explanations. One is that we tend to like to think of ourselves as being above average and pretty good. Than ourselves now.

Right. And so we overestimate how good we are and how much better we are than other people, so we tend to think that whoever I am now, I am better than who I was in the past. It’s hard to imagine that it will get that much better. That’s one idea, the other is that it’s just hard to think about the future. It’s much easier to think “Yes, I know what I used to like” but it’s hard to think, you know, “what will I like in 10 years.” So when you have this kind of blank slate it’s easier to think that things will just stay the same.

I spoke with one Nick Epley that was involved in this at the university of Chicago and he’s done some work asking people you know what they think about their neighbor’s opinions of things and what they think about God’s opinions of things. And people are fairly accurate in realizing that their neighbors, you know that other people may have different views on political issues but God oddly enough has the same views that they have cause it’s kind of this blank slate you have for God. So you project yourself onto him and so that’s probably what they do with their future, when we look ahead at the future and we project our current selves onto it.

Now there is any longitudinal element to this meaning. Have they gone back to the same people and asked them when they were 30 what do they think they will be like when they are 40 and ask the same people 10 years later?

This is a snap shot in time right now. They would have asked people of all ages, some people they asked to look backward some people to look forward and then they could compare them.

But maybe they can follow them now cause it would be interesting. Yeah, they could do that and they also…. there have been longitudinal studies where they do see how people’s values change with age and this study sort of confirmed that where they found that a 30 year old versus the 20 year old that jibed, their reports jibe with the kind of change you find in longitudinal studies.

Now there was one thing in your story in particular that got my attention it was about the financial implications of this inability to see a lot of change looking forward because we know it was the big problem for people before the financial crisis that they bought big homes and they didn’t see maybe a time when incomes would go down. And they didn’t see that looking ahead and so what other research or findings are there that bear into the consequences of not being able to foresee a lot of changes.

This one thing is people when they buy something right now they think that their taste for this, the popular taste will stay that way all the time. And Nick Epley suggested that when someone builds a really up to the minute house, a really trendy house now they don’t realize that in 10 years that house will look as dated as we now look at house 10 years old. It was very trendy then but now looks kind of dated. So we don’t realize that. I mean I just things like when you pose for a family photograph, do you want to wear the latest fashion? And just remind yourself that in 10 years that’s gonna look as dated as like a Neru jacket as in those photo we done then.

I will definitely come to you for fashion advice before my next family photo.


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