Ronald Cole-Turner: Transcending Evolution

Past and Future Selves

Are you done changing? Are your values and personality pretty much set for life? Regardless of our age, most of us seem to think so.

According to new research, people generally recognize that they have changed over the past decade. But in the decade ahead? Overwhelmingly, people think their biggest changes are behind them. It’s as if their present state is the defining moment, when values and personality traits are fully realized and fixed forever. The research team, led by Jordi Quoidbach, called this the “End of History Illusion.”

In six studies involving more than 19,000 participants, researchers “found consistent evidence to indicate that people underestimate how much they will change in the future,” according to the study appearing in the January 4 issue of the journal ScienceLike most illusions, this one comes with a big cost. Thinking they won’t change makes it more likely they will “make decisions that their future selves regret.”

What’s most amazing about this illusion is that it seems to hold true at all ages. In fact, some of the results suggested that more than their grandparents, young people think they are done changing. This much, at least, was clear to the researchers: “Both teenagers and grandparents seem to believe that the pace of personal change has slowed to a crawl and that they have recently become the people they will remain. History, it seems, is always ending today.”

While the researchers are clearly speaking of the history of the individual, their research raises the question of whether there’s a similar illusion when it comes to human history. For example, do we routinely underestimate the amount of technological change that lies ahead or its cultural and social impact? We acknowledge the profound cultural changes in past decades, but do we underestimate what is coming?

We marvel at the transformations of human evolution, but do we fail to imagine the changes that lie ahead? According to the researchers, "people may confuse the difficulty of imagining personal change with the unlikelihood of change itself." If that is true of the human individual, might it also be true of the human species?

A version of this post first appeared on Enhancing Theology.

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