Do you believe you've finally shed the illusions of youth? That you've struggled, and changed, and become a different person? You're half right. One of the most persistent personal illusions is the End of History Illusion — and that might be a very good thing.
Do We Misjudge the Future or Forget the Past?
Remember when you were 16, and you leaned pseudo-casually against the wall outside the band room at school and laughed about all the stuff you "used to" like, and the person you "used to" be? Remember being 19 and doing the same? How about being 22 and doing the same? But those are formative years. You don't really change much anymore, do you?
If you think that, you're not alone. People predict that they'll change in the future, sure, but they don't think they'll change all that much. Even the people who do believe they'll change generally dig in their heels when it comes to specifics. How much do you think you'll like Breaking Bad in a decade? How much money do you think you'll spend to go to the concert of your current favorite band? Most people think the same thing that you do. And those "most people" include people in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies.
Those same people are not particularly enamored of their favorite TV show of a decade earlier. They're not willing to shell out a lot of money for bands they liked a decade before. And, taking it from the specific to the general, when people look back, they believe they changed quite a bit over the last 10 years. In other words, take any decade in a person's life. The people at the start of it believe that they will change far less than the people at the end of it believe they have changed. Are the younger people bad at predicting the future or are the older ones bad at remembering the past?
Why We're Perpetual Adolescents
We get clues to which side of the decade gives people more accurate reckoning from the MacArthur Foundation Survey of Midlife Development. People are tracked over years, answering personality questions at different times of their lives. It's true that the analysis is general. It's known as the Big 5 Personality Test, and tests Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Extraversion, and Neuroticism. People evaluate whether certain statements apply to them, and the statements indicate the degree to which they embody a given personality trait. For example, a person who agrees that "I am the life of the party, " and disagreeswith, "I think carefully before I speak," would be an extravert. Tracking people through their lives can give us an idea of how much people really do change.
Although neither side of the decade got their analysis exactly right, the predictors were farther from the mark than the rememberers. People change far more than they think they will in a given space of time. This is true for any age — the Midlife Development survey tracked people through age 75. In that way alone, we are perpetually adolescent. We think we've finally "become" the person we're going to be for the rest of our lives. We think we've finally got the right values, the right tastes, and the right goals. It's an illusion similar to those people who think we are the product of evolution, or the product of history, rather than part of an ongoing process. Our idea that we've finally "become" the person we're always going to be has been dubbed the End of History Illusion.
Are All Illusions Bad?
Knowing that we won't always have the same values we do now can be useful information when we're going to make a decision. We won't always want that Slytherin coat-of-arms tattoo. We won't always think that it was a great idea to airbrush that howling wolf picture onto the side of our van. Then again, if there's anything more tedious than a fanatic enthusiast it's that person who mopes around with affected world-weariness and won't get excited about anything now because they won't be excited about it 10 years from now.
Perhaps the best thing we can learn, by keeping in mind the End of History Illusion, is to give people a break. This might be especially applicable in the age of the internet, in that some stupid 10-year-old Wordpress blog don't necessarily represent the values of someone who is a decade older and has a completely shifted value system. We shouldn't give people a pass, but we can allow for the possibility of real change.
In the end, the people we should give a real break is ourselves. I've never met anyone who hasn't looked back on who they were a decade ago and wished that they'd made different choices. It's not that we never make mistakes. Sometimes a screw-up is just a screw-up, no matter what value system you have in the future. What the illusion shows us is that the person we were 10 years go was planning a future for themselves, not the person they ended up becoming a decade later.