Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Day 610: Travelling Through Time

At every stage of our lives we make decisions that will profoundly influence the lives of the people we're going to become, and then when we become those people, we're not always thrilled with the decisions we made. So young people pay good money to get tattoos removed that teenagers paid good money to get. Middle-aged people rushed to divorce people who young adults rushed to marry. Older adults work hard to lose what middle-aged adults worked hard to gain. On and on and on. The question is, as a psychologist, that fascinates me is, why do we make decisions that our future selves so often regret? 
Now, I think one of the reasons -- I'll try to convince you today — is that we have a fundamental misconception about the power of time. Every one of you knows that the rate of change slows over the human lifespan, that your children seem to change by the minute but your parents seem to change by the year. But what is the name of this magical point in life where change suddenly goes from a gallop to a crawl? Is it teenage years? Is it middle age? Is it old age? The answer, it turns out, for most people, is now, wherever now happens to be. What I want to convince you today is that all of us are walking around with an illusion, an illusion that history, our personal history, has just come to an end, that we have just recently become the people that we were always meant to be and will be for the rest of our lives.  
Let me give you some data to back up that claim. So here's a study of change in people's personal values over time. Here's three values. Everybody here holds all of them, but you probably know that as you grow, as you age, the balance of these values shifts. So how does it do so? Well, we asked thousands of people. We asked half of them to predict for us how much their values would change in the next 10 years, and the others to tell us how much their values had changed in the last 10 years. And this enabled us to do a really interesting kind of analysis, because it allowed us to compare the predictions of people, say, 18 years old, to the reports of people who were 28, and to do that kind of analysis throughout the lifespan. 
Here's what we found. First of all, you are right, change does slow down as we age, but second, you're wrong, because it doesn't slow nearly as much as we think. At every age, from 18 to 68 in our data set, people vastly underestimated how much change they would experience over the next 10 years. We call this the "end of history" illusion. To give you an idea of the magnitude of this effect, you can connect these two lines, and what you see here is that 18-year-olds anticipate changing only as much as 50-year-olds actually do. - Dan Gilbert  

I quite enjoy discussions that question and pull apart aspects of life and human nature that most of us are completely ignorant about. I enjoy considering things that I have not considered before. What little I have seen so far of Dan Gilbert, he takes on aspects of human behaviour that don't actually make any rational sense - and I like that.

In this Talk he is discussing the fallacies in our perception about time, how we seem to have difficulty in looking at the future (especially) rationally. Near the end he says one of the possibilities of why this is is called ease of remembering versus the difficulty of imagining - basically this means that we can access information in our memories much more easily than constructing possible futures and when we do try to imagine a scenario in the future we assume that, because it is so difficult to imagine, that it is unlikely to happen. 

I propose another possible reason for this misalignment in our past, present and futures: The value we assign to the different factors in our lives is highest in the present moment. The things in our past are, for the most part, not that valuable to us anymore (so our perception and opinion of things in the past is not the same now as it was then). When it comes to the future we are simply irrational in believing that our values will be the same at any point in the future as they are in the present.

There are a number of future-related perception biases recognised in psychology (the Optimistic bias is pretty wide and covers a few of the more specific future-related biases), but here is a list of general fallacies and biases as well. In most of them what is clear is that it is generally quite difficult for us to project accurate and logical states and outcomes of ourselves or our lives into the future. This of course brings into question our ability to effectively plan our futures in terms of day to day living and also things like financial planning. 

Consider that part of the reason that the world and society is in the state it's in is because we have not been planning our futures and considering all possibilities in terms of finding the best solution that will stand the test of time? Consider that our ignorance of our own natures and biases have been significant contributors to the state of the world. When you expose yourself to discussions (for example) that question human nature and bring to light things that you haven't considered before you start seeing your own ignorance in so many aspects of your life and in the world as a whole. Eventually you reach a point where you take nothing for granted and question everything because the sad fact is that this world and human nature are both broken and in need of some serious re-structuring.

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