Why do we make decisions that our future selves so often regret?
Dan Gilbert is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. His main area of interest over the last decade is something he calls errors of prospection: the difficulty that comes from looking into the future and correctly guessing what will happen.
Prospection is about looking into the future, deciding what will make us happy, and pushing towards that. But we often get that wrong. Professor Gilbert's work helps explain why.
The 'end of history' illusion
In a 2013 study, Dan and his colleagues measured the personalities, values and preferences of more than 19,000 people, ranging in age from 18-68. They asked them to report how much they had changed in the past decade and to predict how much they would change in the next decade.
All age ranges reported the same thing - they believed they had changed a lot in the past, but would change very little in the future.
The experimenters referred to this as the 'end of history illusion': persistently regarding the present as a watershed moment, at which we have finally become the person we will be for the rest of our lives.
This illusion affects our decision making in all manner of scary ways. As part of this study, participants were asked to consider how much they would pay
A) To see their current favourite musician perform live today.
B) To see the person who was their favourite musician 10 years ago perform live today.
Logically, the answers should be the same, but there was a big difference between the value in the answers to A and B. On average, the answer to question A was $120, whilst the answer to part B was around $80.
This offers a sobering thought: we are inclined to overpay for the opportunity to indulge our current preferences, because we overestimate their stability over time.
The ease of remembering vs the difficulty of imagining
Part of Professor Gilbert's work involves creating captivating adverts that bring these errors of prospection to the fore, and offer alternative ways for companies (such as insurance firms) to attract new customers. Here's one clever example:
This relative ease means that when weighing-up future decisions, we're far more likely to compare them to the past rather than the possible. The past offers its own familiar context, whereas the future offers multiple possibilities, each with multiple contexts - far more complicated to comprehend.
Time is a powerful force - it has the ability to alter our personalities, transform our values, and reshape our perspective of the decisions we've made. The best we can hope for is to continually challenge ourselves (and each other) to consider multiple perspectives, as often as possible.