Have you ever been asked to imagine during a negotiation or a mediation what the future will look like if you (1) settle the dispute under the terms being proposed; or (2) do not settle the dispute under the proposed (and/or different) terms? No doubt, your response assumes that your reactions, values, preferences, core values, and other aspects of your personality will be the same as they are now. In short, you assume you will be the same person six months from now as you are today.

Labeling this phenomenon as the “end of history illusion”, researchers have concluded that we are dead wrong. While we do recognize that we have changed from our past selves, we “… generally fail to appreciate how much [our] personality and values will change in the years ahead-….” (http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/01/03/168567019/you-cant-see-it-but-youll-be-a-different-person-in-10-years )

In a study conducted by Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard University, Jordi Quoidbach, a Harvard postdoctoral fellow and Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, Va., the researchers found that “people tend to “underestimate how much they will change in the future.”” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/04/science/study-in-science-shows-end-of-history-illusion.html?_r=0).

To conduct the study, the researchers;

 “… devised a series of online experiments in which a total of more than 19,000 people participated. In one, adults between ages 18 and 68 filled out a questionnaire, scoring themselves on basic personality traits such as extraversion, emotional stability, and openness to new experiences. Then the researchers asked them to do it all over again, this time answering either as they would have 10 years ago, or as they thought they would 10 years in the future. The surveys from participants of all ages indicated that on average people felt they had changed more in the past decade than they would in the next…”(http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2013/01/your-elusive-future-self.html?ref=hp)

The researchers found that even senior citizens (aka baby boomers) “… seem to underestimate how much they’ll change.” (Id.)  They found that while a 68 year old reported modest changes in personality during the preceding decade, a 58 year old “…predicted very little, if any, change in the coming decade,…” even though their survey answers reflected a good deal of change over the preceding 10 years.  ( Id.)  Why? Follow up surveys indicated that the underestimation was due to “… errors in predicting the future rather than errors in remembering the past.”  (Id.)

So, why is it that we underestimate how much we will change in the future?  In a January 4, 2013 podcast interview with Science Magazine, Professor Gilbert suggests two reasons:

….First, it’s pretty comforting to believe that change has stopped, that history has come to its end. Why? Well, most people are pretty happy with who they are, and the idea of changing is usually going to be change in a negative direction. Secondly, most people like to believethat they understand themselves, and the idea that you could turn into somebody else entirely could be a little upsetting. So the first reason why we would expect people to show the end of history illusion is that it probably feels good to believe that change has come to a halt. The second reason is that prospection and retrospection are very different processes. They [sic] way we look into the future and the way we look into the past havesimilarities at both the neural and the cognitive level, but they have one important difference, which is it’s easier to look backwards than to look forwards. If I ask you what you had for breakfast this morning, you don’t have any trouble telling me. If I ask you  what you’re going to have tomorrow, you have to sit and think a little bit, because creating something in imagination is harder than remembering something that really happened. Now why is that important? Because when people are asked to predict how they’re going to be in 10 years – what will your personality be like, how will your valueshave changed, what will your preferences be – they probably find that to be pretty hard. Now instead of saying, “Gosh, that’s pretty hard, I’m not sure I can answer your question,” they instead mistakenly think that the difficulty they’re having in predicting change indicates that change is itself unlikely.

(http://www.sciencemag.org/content/suppl/2013/01/03/339.6115.99-b.DC1/SciencePodcast_130104.pdf  at page 3.)

The implication of this “end of history illusion” for   disputes is clear: we should not be so resolute or hard and fast in the positions we take, especially how they  relate to how we will feel in the future, because our values  and indeed, our core selves, will change! What we believe to be of utmost importance today, we will probably view dismissively or as trivial six months from now. In short, we should not take ourselves or any dispute seriously; as with all things in life, this too shall pass.

… Just something to think about.

by Phyllis G. Pollack
Source: http://www.pgpmediation.com/2013/01/18/we-all-change-more-than-we-admit/

Phyllis G. Pollack is a full time neutral in Los Angeles where, as President of PGP Mediation, she focuses on business, real estate, contract and “lemon law” disputes. She may be reached at Phone: 213-630-8810 / phyllis@pgpmediation.com / Website: www.pgpmediation.com