John Tierney discusses the findings of a massive study conducted by Dan Gilbert:
When we remember our past selves, they seem quite different. We know how much our personalities and tastes have changed over the years. But when we look ahead, somehow we expect ourselves to stay the same, a team of psychologists said Thursday, describing research they conducted of people’s self-perceptions.
They called this phenomenon the “end of history illusion,” in which people tend to “underestimate how much they will change in the future.” According to their research, which involved more than 19,000 people ages 18 to 68, the illusion persists from teenage years into retirement.
“Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,” said one of the authors, Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard. “What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”
This is the kind of research that invites a great deal of speculation, but I'll offer just one thought or, really, a question. Are Gilbert's findings entirely related to underestimating the degree of change we will undergo in the future? Could it also be the case that we overestimate the degree of change we've experienced? We know that memory undergoes constant revision, so I wouldn't automatically rule out this possibility as a contributor to the findings.
Also note the usual precaution: Gilbert's study looks at aggregate trends. Individual experience may vary, this being the case for me.
I've long said that I expect I'll be much wiser in the future, but I haven't become as wise as I'd hoped. I also feel a strong sense of continuity with the past, such that I see much of my present self in my recollections of the past, including both the strengths and the weaknesses. Perhaps I see things this way because I focus a great deal on the rudiments of character.
While I recognize changes by degree, I still see the same fundamental "me." I would also say that years of analysis exerted an influence on the change that has occurred, but events outside my control have accounted for much of the impetus for those changes. This makes sense if we look at the mind as a fundamentally adaptive system, which is the way I see it. It's a buggy system, but my view is that it is principally about adaptation.