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(Ken Orvidas)

At What Moment Do You Finally Become Yourself?

New psychological research considers whether you are ever really comfortable with your own taste

Think back to yourself a decade ago, compared with the person you are now. When Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert recruited thousands of adults to perform that mental exercise, he found that people of all ages understand that their personalities, values and tastes have evolved continuously over their lives. Now imagine yourself in ten years. If you are like the subjects in Gilbert’s study, the picture in your mind is probably little changed from the person you are today. Gilbert and colleagues Jordi Quoidbach and Timothy D. Wilson conclude that people “regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.” Otherwise hardly anyone would get a tattoo, or post a photo of it on Facebook.

This phenomenon, called “the end of history illusion,” is pervasive, and can lead to what Quoidbach, now an assistant professor at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, in Barcelona, delicately calls “suboptimal” decisions. To quantify the effect, the researchers asked one group of study participants to name a price they would pay for a concert by their favorite band, assuming the performance takes place in ten years—a measure of how much they expect their musical taste to stay the same. A second group was asked to put a price on a ticket now to hear their favorite band from ten years earlier—reflecting how much their tastes have changed. The difference between $129 (what members of the first group said they’d pay) and $80 (the second group’s average price) is a measure of how much we delude ourselves about the stability of our personalities and preferences.

It’s more than just an amusing quirk of human psychology. In 1976, Gail Sheehy wrote Passages, a hugely influential best seller on the stages of adult life. She remembers interviewing lawyers in their 30s and early 40s who drove themselves relentlessly, to the exclusion of family life and the detriment of their health. Those ten years older had a very different perspective on what was important. If they could have looked ahead to the people they would become, would they have spent their time differently?

Perhaps what we should seek (borrowing from Robert Burns’ famous poem) is not the gift of seeing ourselves as others see us, but of seeing the person we will be in the future. Especially if that person will be applying for a teaching job with “Ride Fast Die Young” tattooed on her forearm.

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