The End of History Illusion

Treat Thompson



This is a republishing of The Steady Fella Newsletter. Twice a month readers use the timeless insights on passion, productivity, philosophy, and happiness from this newsletter to build towards the life they want.

Do you think you’ve changed much as a person over the last 10 years?

Now, do you think you’ll change just as much over the next 10 years?

If you answered yes to the first question and no to the second, you are in the majority.

Most people believe their personalities, core values, preferences, and relationships today are in their final form. This is because of a phenomenon called “the end of history illusion”.

The phenomenon is based on a series of studies showing that people often underestimate how much they will change, despite knowing how much they’ve already changed.

In the studies, 19,000 people were split into two groups: predictors and reporters.

Researchers asked the predictors to estimate how much they believed various aspects of their lives would change in the next ten years. They then asked the reporters how much those aspects had changed for them in the past ten years.

The results showed that the predictor’s estimate was significantly lower than the reporter’s experience.

For example, the 25-year-old predictors said their personalities would change very little by 35, meanwhile, the 35-year-old reporters said their personalities had changed significantly since age 25.

The researchers wrote that people seem to regard their present selves as the person they will be for the rest of their lives. We think that the bulk of our personal change is behind us. However, we’re wrong - we perpetually grow until the end of our time.

This illusion can have serious impacts on our lives. These are three major ones:

Reactive life choices

Although life is unpredictable, we still have the autonomy to shape our future selves. The end of history illusion tries to rob us of that freedom.

Dr. Benjamin Hardy explains this by saying, “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 mindset

The end of history illusion forces us into a fixed mindset that makes it hard to grow.

We begin to think that our skills, intelligence, and capabilities are fixed traits that can’t change.

It makes us hold onto our present selves so tightly that we miss out on opportunities in life.

For example, it will make someone think that because they have already spent 15 years in finance, they can’t pursue a new career in filmmaking.

Short-sighted planning

This is perhaps the most serious way the end of history illusion affects us.

It’s when we create long-term plans around our, short-term, optimistic or pessimistic feelings.

It’s why:

  • Young adults pay good money to remove tattoos that teenagers paid good money to get.
  • Middle-aged adults rush to divorce people who young adults rushed to marry.
  • Older adults work hard to lose what middle-aged adults worked hard to gain.

We overestimate the stability of our current selves, so we over-invest in a future based on present preferences.

Overall, the end of history illusion impairs our ability to shape a future we want.

The best course of action is to be mindful of the impacts mentioned above and to create a personal vision statement to work towards.

In your vision statement establish things such as: what you want a typical day to look like, what social groups you want to be in, how much money you want to make, where you might want to live, and what milestones you would want to have reached by that specific age.

Featured Quote

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.- Soren Kierkegaard

The expression “hindsight is 20/20” applies here: it’s easy to understand a scenario that has already happened.

However, we don’t have the luxury of living life this way. We function in the unknown and try to make the best of it using our past experiences.