We Think We’ve Changed More In The Past Than We Will Change In The Future — And Americans Seem Particularly Susceptible To This Illusion

By Emma Young

Think about what you were like 10 years ago. How have you changed, in terms of values, life satisfaction and personality? Now picture yourself 10 years in the future. Do you think you’ll be just as different then as you were a decade in the past?

When asked about past vs future change, most people — no matter what their age — report more change over a period of time in the past than they predict for the same period into the future. This “End of History Illusion” has been well-documented, at least, among WEIRD populations. Now Brian W. Haas at the University of Georgia, US, and Kazufumi Omura at Yamagata University, Japan, report some cultural differences in susceptibility to it. Their paper, in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, also provides some intriguing hints as to why those differences exist.

In the first of two studies, Haas and Omura analysed existing data on around 5,000 middle-aged Japanese and American participants. Participants answered questions about their life satisfaction, family relationships, work situation, health and financial situation at three different time points: currently, 10 years in the past and predicted for 10 years in the future. The difference between a person’s level of reported past change and predicted future change became their End of History Illusion (EoHI) score. 

The analysis showed that both the American and Japanese groups were susceptible to the illusion in relation to life satisfaction, family relationships and work situation, but the Americans were more susceptible — they reported more past vs predicted future change compared to Japanese participants.

Haas and Omura then looked at the participants’ scores on a measure of self-esteem. They found that among the Americans only, people who had higher self-esteem tended to be more susceptible to the illusion. The Americans also tended to feel more negatively about their pasts than their current state, whereas the Japanese participants tended to report that their pasts were more positive than their current state. The idea of personal growth — of striving for improvement and the “American Dream” — is much more popular and important in the US than in Japan. For Americans, viewing their past in a harsher light could help them to feel that they have really grown and improved, supporting their self-esteem.

For their second study, Haas and Omura turned to personality. The pair recruited just over 1,600 online participants from the US and Japan. All completed simple personality tests for themselves as they were currently, but also as they felt they had been 10 years ago and would be in another decade. 

Reflecting the earlier pattern of results, Americans tended to report more past than predicted future personality change than the Japanese participants. They also tended to view their past personalities negatively, compared with their present personalities, while those from Japan tended to report their past selves relatively similar to their present selves.

Once again, higher self-esteem scores were linked to more reported past personality change for the Americans. But this time, Haas and Omura also looked at scores on a measure of “self concept clarity” — essentially, how well people feel that they know themselves. They found that higher scores on self-concept clarity — which were more common among the Americans — were linked to predictions of less present-to-future personality change. Why should this be?  It might be that Americans are more concerned with feeling that they “know themselves”: “Predicting that one’s self will remain stable in the future may aid in preserving confidence in self-knowledge,” the researchers write.

Overall, they add: “these findings show that US Americans’ view of their personality development is in part driven by their motivation to believe that they have grown and improved in relation to the past and that they will be stable moving forward in the future.”

There are some limitations to the work. It would have been interesting to also know actual as well as estimated personality and life satisfaction scores over the 20-year period. This type of study would clearly take decades to run, however.

Haas and Omura argue that the work supports the idea that our life stories are central to how we think of ourselves through time — but also shows that different cultures don’t necessarily feature the same life stories. “The EoHI helps to paint a picture that one has changed substantially in the past and is now in a relatively stable good position,” the pair writes. “Although this illusion seems to exist across different cultures, US Americans seem to paint the picture of the EoHI with relatively more vivid colours than Japanese.”

Cultural Differences in Susceptibility to the End of History Illusion

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest