Why You Can't Imagine Your Older Self
A new study finds that most of us acknowledge we've evolved over the years — but refuse to believe we'll change as we grow older
Gary Drevitch is senior Web editor for Next Avenue's Caregiving and Health & Well-Being channels. Follow Gary on Twitter @GaryDrevitch.
If only I knew then what I know now.
We're all quite confident that if we could have advised our younger selves with the knowledge we've accumulated by middle age, our lives might be radically different — happier, healthier and wealthier. Here at Next Avenue, we're so sure of the concept that we recently went to the trouble of composing Tweets to our younger selves.
It's true, of course, that most of us gain wisdom and experience as we age, but a new study has found that few people actually acknowledge the process will continue in the future and that our older selves are likely to look back on our fiftysomething days as a time of relative ignorance. Our failure to realize this, researchers have found, has surprising costs.
Why We Don't Believe in Our Evolution
Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert and a team of colleagues published on Thursday in Science magazine the results of their study of more than 19,000 people ages 18 to 68. The subjects competed a questionnaire in which they evaluated themselves on traits like extroversion, stability and openness to new experiences. Then they filled out another survey, attempting to answer the same questions as they might have 10 years earlier or as they expected they would a decade in the future.
What Gilbert's team found was that, in general, people believed they had changed more in the past decade than they anticipated changing in the next, seriously underestimating how their personalities and tastes were likely to evolve. For example, 68-year-olds described real shifts during the previous decade, but few 58-year-olds predicted transformations in their 68-year-old selves, even though they reported major changes since turning 48.
"Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin," Gilbert told The New York Times. "What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh — and at every age we’re wrong."
Follow-up studies found that while subjects failed to predict the future, they did accurately represent changes they had undergone since they were younger. It's what Gilbert calls "the end of history illusion," suggesting that we are likely to believe that our present, at whatever age we've attained, marks the end stage of our personal evolution.
Giving Up on Old Favorites
The theory holds, Gilbert says, whether we're considering our personal values or our tastes and preferences. Just think about how your tastes in music or film have changed in the past 20 years, for example, or how much the tastes of older loved ones have changed since they were younger. I certainly listen to less Blue Öyster Cult, or rock music in general, than I once did, but I never imagined that taste would wane. And if someone told me 20 years ago that my middle-aged self would attend more operas than pop concerts, I'd have told them they had me confused with a different person.
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"What these data suggest, and what scads of other data from our lab and others suggest," Gilbert told Science, "is that people really aren't very good at knowing who they're going to be and hence what they're going to want a decade from now."
Believing we've achieved our ultimate state is reassuring and boosts our egos, Gilbert's team reports. But there's a potentially important benefit as well – if we were to pay more attention to the likelihood that we'll grow tired of things we love today, we could become indecisive and anxious, or begin calling all of our personal, cultural and even professional decisions into question, with possibly dispiriting effects.
There are intriguing financial implications of this self-delusion as well. Gilbert's team asked some subjects how much they'd pay to see their favorite current band play in concert in 2022, and asked others what they'd pay today to see their favorite group from 2002. On average, subjects said they'd pay 61 percent more for the future show with their current faves than they would pay to see their past favorites now.
"You'd think by the time people reach middle age they'd realize that their favorite band today isn't necessarily going to be their favorite band in 10 years," Gilbert says. But, as his team wrote in their paper, "participants substantially overpaid for a future opportunity to indulge a current preference."
In Science, Gilbert makes the case that when we consider any long-term investments, or, for that matter, relationships, we need to understand that "any kind of lifetime commitment is based on your belief that you know the person you're going to be in 10 years."
What some find fascinating about the new research is that, as University of Colorado social psychologist Leaf Van Boven told Science, people generally believe others will change as they age — but not themselves. "We fully expect other people to change," Van Boven said. "We fully realize that we have changed in the past. There's something odd about this projection of the self into the future that's psychologically unique."
Role Models Abound
Some have noted that studies like Gilbert's are flawed because, after all, how can we precisely predict how we will change? It's difficult to know how successes or setbacks will affect us in the years ahead, so it's logical that we would expect the most likely scenario to be a continuation of the status quo.
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Gilbert's answer is that we have plenty of evidence to forecast how we might evolve. "The single best way to make predictions about what you're going to want in the future isn't to imagine yourself in the future," he says. "It's to look at other people who are in the very future you're imagining."
Observing changes in people who are older than us, Gilbert says, "provides some of the best information we can get about the future."