Psychologists have conducted a study on people’s self-perceptions. They have found that when we remember our past selves we seem quite different but when we estimate how much our personalities will change in the future we expect it ourselves to stay the same. This is called the “end of history illusion”. According to the study, with a sample size of more than 19,000 people ages from 18 to 69, the illusion occurs from teenage years all the way into retirement. The findings of the study were published in the journal Science.
Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard who is one of the authors of this study says, “Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin. 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.”
A survey was given to the participants relating to their personality traits and preferences including their favorite food, vacations, hobbies and bands in relation to their past and present and then asked to make predictions of their future preferences. What the study found was that a 20-year old woman’s prediction of her various interests for the next ten years were not as radical or extreme as a 30-year old woman’s recollection of her past self ten years ago. This finding is consistently found in participants all the way up to 60 years old. One might argue that this finding is due to faulty memories but other independent studies find that personality traits do shift with age. The findings seem substantiated.
So why is it that this “end of history illusion” occur? Dr. Gilbert, Jordi Quoidbach of Harvard University and Timothy D. Wilson from University of Virginia theorize that people tend to overestimate their own wonderfulness. One explanation of this occurrence by Dr. Quoidbach has said, “Believing that we just reached the peak of our personal evolution makes us feel good. The ‘I wish that I knew then what I know now’ experience might give us a sense of satisfaction and meaning, whereas realizing how transient our preferences and values are might lead us to doubt every decision and generate anxiety.”
Another explanation put forth by the authors is that predicting the future requires more mental energy and work compared to recalling memories from the past. In people’s minds, they may be confusing the difficulty of trying to think of their own personality changes with the unlikelihood of change.
In one of the experiments, the researchers asked participants to tell them how much they were willing to spend on a concert of their favorite bands ten years ago. The average was $80 to see a band they liked ten years ago today. Whereas when asked how much they were willing to spend to see a concert of their favorite band now in ten years time, they would be willing to spend an average of $129. Participants often realize that their previous favorite bands have lost some of their appeal. People confusedly believe that their favorite bands now will still be extremely popular and appealing forever.
In similar experiments, Dan P. McAdams, a psychologist a Northwestern University also believe that people generally have a poor imagination for their own personal future. He has conducted research in collecting stories where participants constructed from their past and future lives. He has found that oftentimes, the stories in the past are complex and dynamic but when to imagine a future the stories become vague and prosaic.
So what does this mean for people who choose to get tattoos? It means that in the present moment, getting a tattoo of your favorite band’s name across your arm or your lovers name on your bum seems like a really good idea and that any perception of future change will not cross your mind. However, in these studies, people often make false assumptions and expectations of the future. People will change. In many cases, like celebrities with tattoos, it may seem sexy and alluring for Cheryl Cole to have a double rose tattoo or Megan Fox to have quote along her rib cage but when they’re sixty or seventy years old and their tattoo is misshapen and losing it’s color, will they think that it was a foolish and young decision? Only time will tell.