What you’ll be like a decade from now

Why do people get ill-advised tattoos, marry questionable partners, or make financial-planning decisions they come to regret? A new study suggests that part of the reason is that we aren’t very good at predicting how much we’re going to change in the future. We are prone to believe whatever we think and value now will hold true. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert led the study and says, “People really aren’t very good at knowing who they’re going to be and hence what they’re going to want a decade from now.” Gilbert tells LiveScience.com, “At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”

The Harvard University study survey of more than 19,000 people between the ages of 18 and 68. People act as if history shaped them and then ended, leaving them in their final form. The researchers call the effect “the end of history” illusion.

Younger people in the survey did not expect to change as much as their the elders changed within the same time frame. The researchers made an effort to make sure that the people in the survey were not just overestimating past change but rather underestimating future change by comparing the results to predictions made on another survey a decade ago.

Although we aren’t very good at predicting our future selves, most of us are able to see that our values, preferences and personalities are different from a decade ago. We just can’t predict how much change will come looking forward the same length of time.

We may be motivated by the desire to comfort ourselves. We tell ourselves that future change won’t be very dramatic. We know ourselves and the future is predictable. Our present selves are permanent, so this thinking goes.

Other studies show you are less likely to change the older you get, but you will still change more than you expect.

Gilbert offers this advice: Take care when making long-term decisions to include a “margin for escape”. If you are buying a ticket to see your favorite band in ten years, you might want to pause before buying a ticket.

But there is another side of the coin to consider before including a 10 year opt-out clause in your wedding vows: Research shows that when people feel they have the ability to change their minds, they're less happy with the choices they've made.

You can read more about the study in the journal Science.

Stephen Goforth