January 4th, 2013

Really?

End of History Illusion?

I'm never quite sure what to think of Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson. When I am in agreement with what they conclude, it makes me question my belief; when I disagree with them, it's hard for me to respect their conclusions which seem to me to be far in advance of their data.

They've got a new one out:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/04/science/study-in-science-shows-end-of-history-illusion.html

Or, for those avoiding the NYT:

http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/33837/title/Metamorphosis-Complete/

Lead author is Jordi Quoidbach (which is just about the best name ever, spoken as someone with a genealogy hobby).

"The amount of future change that the volunteers predicted was always smaller than the amount of past change they reported. For example, 19-year-olds felt they would change less in their next decade than 29-year-olds thought they had done in their previous one. And while the illusion was stronger in younger people, every age group from teenagers to grandparents seemed to think they would stay as the people they had become."

I'm never sure how to characterize how much I've changed. I tend not to think I've changed at all in the last decade (or so), but then I have to admit I've moved across country a few times, gotten married a second time, had two children, learned to enjoy living in the suburbs, and taken to regularly eating kale (I used to only eat it occasionally). Then there's a bunch of stuff like owning an automatic transmission again, and buying a 4 bedroom house.

On the other hand, I still have pb&j for breakfast virtually every day, and many of my other foods are the same old favorites (granting the kale, of course). True, I've cut way back on ahi and similar fish because of concerns about mercury -- but that's not a change in taste it's a change in information. I carry an iPhone instead of a Treo smart phone -- but that's a change in what is available. I have a _very_ different hobby (genealogy instead of hiking), but it's a hobby with very deep roots in my past as well, and the hiking will come back when my child commitments change further.

I could go on. Are there bands I like now that didn't used to exist. Absolutely! And I've observed before that my reading tastes have changed enormously just in the 5 years I've had a kindle (used to hate reading electronic books under e-ink came along with the Amazon ecosystem). But when the authors observe things like this:

"This illusion can affect our financial decisions. By quizzing 170 more volunteers online, the team found that people would pay $129 to see their favorite band perform in 10 years time, but would pay just $80 to see their favorite band from 10 years ago perform next week."

I think that's a bunch of foolishness. Nominal dollars or inflation adjusted, perhaps, is an unfair question, but there's a curve of desirability that's being measured -- not necessarily a[n] [dis]ability to predict the future per se.

This bugs me even more:

"Instead, the team thinks that people underestimate the future, either because they believe that our current status quo is optimal or because they feel they know themselves well. “People are motivated to think well of themselves and to feel secure in that understanding, and the end of history illusion may help them accomplish these goals,” Quoidbach wrote."

I think that's just bullshit. I think what's really going on is that people are alive now and they were alive 10 years ago. Those are things they know. They have not devoted any time to thinking about being alive 10 years older -- that is not something within their experience. If you walked them through even a half hour visualization exercise of what the next ten years would bring, I bet those results would change a ton.