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TED2014

Dan Gilbert: The psychology of your future self

March 18, 2014

"Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they're finished." Dan Gilbert shares recent research on a phenomenon he calls the "end of history illusion," where we somehow imagine that the person we are right now is the person we'll be for the rest of time. Hint: that's not the case.

Dan Gilbert - Psychologist; happiness expert
Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert says our beliefs about what will make us happy are often wrong -- a premise he supports with intriguing research, and explains in his accessible and unexpectedly funny book, Stumbling on Happiness. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
At every stage of our lives
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we make decisions that will profoundly influence
00:14
the lives of the people we're going to become,
00:18
and then when we become those people,
00:19
we're not always thrilled with the decisions we made.
00:21
So young people pay good money
00:23
to get tattoos removed that teenagers
00:26
paid good money to get.
00:29
Middle-aged people rushed to divorce people
00:30
who young adults rushed to marry.
00:33
Older adults work hard to lose
00:35
what middle-aged adults worked hard to gain.
00:38
On and on and on.
00:40
The question is, as a psychologist,
that fascinates me is,
00:42
why do we make decisions
00:45
that our future selves so often regret?
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Now, I think one of the reasons --
00:50
I'll try to convince you today —
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is that we have a fundamental misconception
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about the power of time.
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Every one of you knows that the rate of change
00:59
slows over the human lifespan,
01:01
that your children seem to change by the minute
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but your parents seem to change by the year.
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But what is the name of this magical point in life
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where change suddenly goes
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from a gallop to a crawl?
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Is it teenage years? Is it middle age?
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Is it old age? The answer, it turns out,
01:19
for most people, is now,
01:21
wherever now happens to be.
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What I want to convince you today
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is that all of us are walking around with an illusion,
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an illusion that history, our personal history,
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has just come to an end,
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that we have just recently become
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the people that we were always meant to be
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and will be for the rest of our lives.
01:42
Let me give you some data to back up that claim.
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So here's a study of change in people's
01:46
personal values over time.
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Here's three values.
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Everybody here holds all of them,
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but you probably know that as you grow,
01:54
as you age, the balance of these values shifts.
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So how does it do so?
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Well, we asked thousands of people.
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We asked half of them to predict for us
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how much their values would
change in the next 10 years,
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and the others to tell us
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how much their values had
changed in the last 10 years.
02:10
And this enabled us to do a really
interesting kind of analysis,
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because it allowed us to compare the predictions
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of people, say, 18 years old,
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to the reports of people who were 28,
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and to do that kind of analysis
throughout the lifespan.
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Here's what we found.
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First of all, you are right,
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change does slow down as we age,
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but second, you're wrong,
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because it doesn't slow nearly as much as we think.
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At every age, from 18 to 68 in our data set,
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people vastly underestimated how much change
02:40
they would experience over the next 10 years.
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We call this the "end of history" illusion.
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To give you an idea of the magnitude of this effect,
02:49
you can connect these two lines,
02:52
and what you see here is that 18-year-olds
02:53
anticipate changing only as much
02:56
as 50-year-olds actually do.
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Now it's not just values. It's all sorts of other things.
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For example, personality.
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Many of you know that psychologists now claim
03:07
that there are five fundamental
dimensions of personality:
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neuroticism, openness to experience,
03:13
agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness.
03:15
Again, we asked people how much they expected
03:19
to change over the next 10 years,
03:21
and also how much they had
changed over the last 10 years,
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and what we found,
03:26
well, you're going to get used to
seeing this diagram over and over,
03:27
because once again the rate of change
03:29
does slow as we age,
03:31
but at every age, people underestimate
03:33
how much their personalities will change
03:37
in the next decade.
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And it isn't just ephemeral things
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like values and personality.
03:43
You can ask people about their likes and dislikes,
03:45
their basic preferences.
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For example, name your best friend,
03:50
your favorite kind of vacation,
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what's your favorite hobby,
03:54
what's your favorite kind of music.
03:56
People can name these things.
03:57
We ask half of them to tell us,
03:59
"Do you think that that will
change over the next 10 years?"
04:01
and half of them to tell us,
04:05
"Did that change over the last 10 years?"
04:06
And what we find, well, you've seen it twice now,
04:08
and here it is again:
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people predict that the friend they have now
04:13
is the friend they'll have in 10 years,
04:16
the vacation they most enjoy now is the one
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they'll enjoy in 10 years,
04:20
and yet, people who are 10 years older all say,
04:21
"Eh, you know, that's really changed."
04:24
Does any of this matter?
04:27
Is this just a form of mis-prediction
that doesn't have consequences?
04:28
No, it matters quite a bit, and
I'll give you an example of why.
04:31
It bedevils our decision-making in important ways.
04:34
Bring to mind right now for yourself
04:37
your favorite musician today
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and your favorite musician 10 years ago.
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I put mine up on the screen to help you along.
04:44
Now we asked people
04:46
to predict for us, to tell us
04:48
how much money they would pay right now
04:50
to see their current favorite musician
04:53
perform in concert 10 years from now,
04:55
and on average, people said they would pay
04:58
129 dollars for that ticket.
05:00
And yet, when we asked them
how much they would pay
05:03
to see the person who was their favorite
05:06
10 years ago perform today,
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they say only 80 dollars.
05:10
Now, in a perfectly rational world,
05:12
these should be the same number,
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but we overpay for the opportunity
05:16
to indulge our current preferences
05:18
because we overestimate their stability.
05:20
Why does this happen? We're not entirely sure,
05:24
but it probably has to do
05:26
with the ease of remembering
05:28
versus the difficulty of imagining.
05:30
Most of us can remember
who we were 10 years ago,
05:32
but we find it hard to imagine who we're going to be,
05:35
and then we mistakenly think
that because it's hard to imagine,
05:38
it's not likely to happen.
05:41
Sorry, when people say "I can't imagine that,"
05:43
they're usually talking about
their own lack of imagination,
05:46
and not about the unlikelihood
05:49
of the event that they're describing.
05:50
The bottom line is, time is a powerful force.
05:53
It transforms our preferences.
05:57
It reshapes our values.
05:58
It alters our personalities.
06:01
We seem to appreciate this fact,
06:02
but only in retrospect.
06:05
Only when we look backwards do we realize
06:06
how much change happens in a decade.
06:09
It's as if, for most of us,
06:12
the present is a magic time.
06:14
It's a watershed on the timeline.
06:16
It's the moment at which we finally
06:18
become ourselves.
06:20
Human beings are works in progress
06:23
that mistakenly think they're finished.
06:25
The person you are right now
06:28
is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary
06:30
as all the people you've ever been.
06:34
The one constant in our life is change.
06:36
Thank you.
06:40
(Applause)
06:42

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Dan Gilbert - Psychologist; happiness expert
Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert says our beliefs about what will make us happy are often wrong -- a premise he supports with intriguing research, and explains in his accessible and unexpectedly funny book, Stumbling on Happiness.

Why you should listen

Dan Gilbert believes that, in our ardent, lifelong pursuit of happiness, most of us have the wrong map. In the same way that optical illusions fool our eyes -- and fool everyone's eyes in the same way -- Gilbert argues that our brains systematically misjudge what will make us happy. And these quirks in our cognition make humans very poor predictors of our own bliss.

The premise of his current research -- that our assumptions about what will make us happy are often wrong -- is supported with clinical research drawn from psychology and neuroscience. But his delivery is what sets him apart. His engaging -- and often hilarious -- style pokes fun at typical human behavior and invokes pop-culture references everyone can relate to. This winning style translates also to Gilbert's writing, which is lucid, approachable and laugh-out-loud funny. The immensely readable Stumbling on Happiness, published in 2006, became a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into 20 languages.

In fact, the title of his book could be drawn from his own life. At 19, he was a high school dropout with dreams of writing science fiction. When a creative writing class at his community college was full, he enrolled in the only available course: psychology. He found his passion there, earned a doctorate in social psychology in 1985 at Princeton, and has since won a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Phi Beta Kappa teaching prize for his work at Harvard. He has written essays and articles for The New York Times, Time and even Starbucks, while continuing his research into happiness at his Hedonic Psychology Laboratory.

The original video is available on TED.com
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