How the end-of-history illusion prevents you from shaping your future self

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“Where do you see yourselves in five years?”

Tough question, isn’t it? It’s hard to imagine where we will be in five days, let alone five years. And yet, most people believe that their personalities, work situations, and values won’t change much in the future, even though they have changed tremendously in the past. This is because of a phenomenon called the end-of-history illusion. Let’s see why it matters in our professional and personal lives, and three simple steps towards letting go of this illusion to better shape your future self.

Seeing the present as a watershed moment

Three psychologists coined the phrase “end-of-history illusion” in 2013. Their discovery of the phenomenon is based on a series of studies showing that people tend to underestimate how much they will change in the future, despite knowing how much they have changed over time. In their research, Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson tested personality changes first. They recruited over 7,500 adults and split them into two groups: predictors and reporters.

They asked predictors to estimate how much they believed their personality would change in the next ten years.  For instance, a 25-year-old predictor would guess how much their personalities might change by the time they hit 35. Then, the researchers asked reporters how much their personalities had changed in the past ten years. In this group, a 35-year-old reporter would describe how their personality has changed since they were 25.

The results showed that the predictors believed that they would change less than the reporters’ actual experience of personality change. The researchers write: “Young people, middle-aged people, and older people all believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future. People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.”

What parts of our lives are affected by the end-of-history illusion? Turns out, quite a few important aspects are impacted. In the second part of this series of studies, the researchers used the same methods to test changes in core values, such as power, achievement, self-direction, and conformity. Then, the research team tested changes in preferences, such as favorite foods, movies, hobbies, and friendships.

End-of-history illusion results from original studies

All of the tests yielded similar results. First, the older the participants were, the less change in preferences they reported or predicted. In addition, the predictors consistently underestimated how much their values and preferences would change compared to the actual experiences of the reporters ten years their senior. The researchers explain that “the foregoing studies suggest that people underestimate the extent to which their personalities, values, and preferences will change in the future.”

The impact of the end-of-history illusion

By making us reactive instead of proactive, the end-of-history illusion affects our lives in several ways, leading to short-sighted planning and fixed assumptions about ourselves. 

  • Reactive life choices. Of course life can be unpredictable, but the end-of-history illusion robs us from the ownership we could take when it comes to shaping our future self. As Dr. Benjamin Hardy explains: “It’s much easier to default to the present than to imagine a different future. But if you don’t take the time to imagine who you want to be, then you’ll reactively become whatever life drives you towards.”
  • Fixed labels. “My job will always come first”, “I’m too introverted to make new friends”, “I’m too irresponsible to have a pet”… By fostering a fixed mindset, the end-of-history illusion makes us hold onto those labels too tightly, and possibly miss some great opportunities that can change us for the better.
  • Short-sighted planning. Let’s say you are a student who needs to study for an exam. At the time you are drafting your study plan, your present self is feeling well rested and excited about the topic, so you are confident in terms of how many hours you can study for every day. But, of course, after a few days of study, your future self will have depleted energy levels, and some aspects of the topic may not feel as exciting anymore. By making us either overly optimistic or pessimistic, the end-of-history illusion can also have an impact on the way we manage our time and energy, which can lead to short-sighted planning.

In essence, the end-of-history illusion hinders our ability to shape our future self — which, if you care about personal growth, is a pretty big deal.

Three steps to actively shape your future self

People tend to believe that they have great personalities and good values. Nobody wants to change for the worse: to keep a positive self-image, we tend to believe these positive aspects of ourselves will remain constant. Furthermore, it is much harder to imagine the future than to reflect on our past. Despite these challenges, it is possible to work around the end-of-history illusion.

  1. Reflect on your past self. Carve out some time to think about how much you have changed in the past few years. For instance, think about who you were three years ago. What kinds of activities did you like to do? What type of work did you enjoy the most? Who were your closest friends? Then, think about who you are right now. Have your hobbies, work priorities, or friendships changed? Spending some time with our past selves can foster the right mindset  to think about how we might change in the future.
  2. Imagine your ideal future self. Just like you might do for your business, consider writing a vision statement for yourself.  A personal vision statement is an opportunity to consider what you really want in the future. Ask yourself questions such as: What will your typical day look like? What will your work environment look like? What kinds of clients do you want to work with? How much money do you want to make? Do not focus only on areas of your life you deem important today; try to explore areas that don’t seem as crucial to your present self, but may be central to the life of your future self. For instance, you may not be in a relationship, have kids, run a company, or speak another language today — what about your future self? Once you have a vision statement written down, you can start making plans for making those goals happen.
  3. Share your personal vision. You may be inclined to keep your plans to yourself — you may worry about people’s reaction, or feel embarrassed if you don’t achieve your goals. But sharing your personal vision is critical for accountability. In the words of Dr. Benjamin Hardy: “Telling people who you want to be is incredibly powerful because it will compel you to make your behavior consistent with your new story.” Plus, it helps to have trusted colleagues and friends cheer you along on your journey!

The end-of-history illusion may keep us focused on the present but can prevent us from actively shaping our future selves. If we make decisions without thinking about our future selves, we may end up living life in a reactive way, without proper planning or opportunities for personal growth. The good news is: reflection, projection, and sharing that personal vision with others can help us consider our future selves when making decisions for our businesses and our personal lives. As philosopher Søren Kierkegaard puts it: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”