August 28, 2023

Understanding the end-of-history illusion

But finally, jellyfish appeared!

In Daniel Quinn’s popular eco-philosophy novelIshmael, this is how a jellyfish triumphantly ends its telling of creation. An imaginary anthropologist has traveled back millions of years to interview this squishy invertebrate as it swims nearby, asking it to recount its story of how the world came to be.

The jellyfish tells a tale a lot like ours – from the formation of galaxies to life’s first appearance on our planet. Only difference is, it ends then and there, with the jellyfish. Finally, jellyfish.

Quinn uses this parable to illustrate our responsibility as temporary stewards of this planet, but it also shows a curious cognitive bias that we’re victim to in our own lives, the “end-of-history illusion.” In brief: we believe that we’ve changed a lot in the past, but now we’re pretty much done changing. After years of growth, our permanent selves have finally arrived.

Across thousands of subjects, when researchers ask participants how much they believe their personality, values, or preferences have changed in the past ten years, they found the same pattern. Regardless of age, people believe that they changed a lot in the previous decade… and that they’re only going to change a little bit in the next one.

Here’s what study authors Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson conclude:

Although the magnitude of this end of history illusion in some of our studies was greater for younger people than for older people, it was nonetheless evident at every stage of adult life that we could analyze. 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.

We can see these results first-hand. Let’s take one of the questions from this study: What’s your favorite musical act today? How much would you be willing to pay to see them in concert ten years in the future?

Now, think back on your favorite artist from ten years ago. How much would you be willing to pay to see them perform next week?

Maybe you’ve been jamming to the same band for a long time – but as much as I enjoyed MGMT and fun. in my twenties, I’d likely pony up less to see them today than I would have a decade ago.

That type of change is expected, and we should expect it in our future selves as well. But in the study, participants were willing to pay 61% more to see their current favorites in the future than to see their former favorites today. Effectively: old me was young and immature, but the new me is wise and everlasting. Finally, I have the right taste.

The end-of-history illusion is the belief that we're less likely to change in the future than we have in the past

At its darkest, this end-of-history illusion can hold us back from achieving our full potential. If we believe that our future is static, we’re less likely to take big risks, start a new relationship, or embark on a new venture (or even just get a soon-regrettable tattoo). If we believe that we can’t change, we won’t try to shape that change in the direction we want.

One of the principles of effective, simple communication is empathy. And empathy is largely achieved by swallowing large doses of humility – realizing that we don’t know other people (and the world as a whole) as much as we might think, and that we’re better off when we seek and respect their insights. The end-of-history illusion just further deepens this truth: we don’t know ourselves as much as we think.

(PS: This cognitive bias is named after a popular geopolitics book of the same title, one which hasn’t aged quite so well since it came out at the end of the Cold War. I recommend checking out the excellent podcast If Books Could Kill, which did an entertaining and informative contemporary review of the book.)

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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