Chronocentrism and the “End of History” Illusion

We measured the personalities, values, and preferences of more than 19,000 people who ranged in age from 18 to 68 and asked them to report how much they had changed in the past decade and/or to predict how much they would change in the next decade. Young people, middle-aged people, and older people all believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future. People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives. This “end of history illusion” had practical consequences, leading people to overpay for future opportunities to indulge their current preferences.

That’s the abstract from a new article in Science by Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel T. Gilbert (yes, that Daniel Gilbert), and Timothy D. Wilson. The emphasis is mine.

I love it when science Science provides strong evidence in favor of a relationship I have posited on this blog.

I have discussed chronocentrism — defined by Tom Standage as “the egotism that one’s own generation is poised on the very cusp of history” — twice in the past year and a half; see here and here.

Both times, I have emphasized how one has to be aware of that cognitive bias, both personally, but also when taking decisions that have consequences for others. Being aware of one’s own chronocentric bias or that one suffers from the “End of History” illusion is especially important for policy makers:

[C]hronocentric policy making can be dangerous. The four most dangerous words of investing — “This time it’s different” — are also the four most dangerous words in the English language.

Going back to the example of the world at seven billion, if you believe we have crossed a special population threshold beyond which we will experience constant starvation and famine, you are probably willing to adopt drastic population-control policies that would curtail the freedom to have as many children as they want many people currently enjoy.

Would that be right? And how confident would you have to be that “this time it’s different” to justify a potential loss of welfare spread out over so many people?

HT: Mungowitz, via KPC.


  1. Marc F. Bellemare

    Dave, thanks for your comment, and thanks for the link to your post about complexity. If I had one comment to make about your post, it’s that I was surprised that it did not include the word “information.”

    Whenever I hear about “complexity,” and how there is more of it to go around than there ever was, the first thing I think about is information in many, many forms. If you think back to the world described by Weber in Peasants into Frenchmen, there was a time where you world began and ended at the village, and it was unlikely that you would ever have to go beyond that. Come the age of 15 or 16, you would have 90% of the information you would ever need about your environment, both physical and social, and that environment was unlikely to change much.

    But with the advent of the telegraph, the radio, the television, and more recently the Internet and smart phones, we have constant access to new information. In many cases, we receive that new information whether we want to or not. Even modern day Luddites, who shun smart phones, who don’t have a television, etc. receive that information through their (real, rather than online) social network. So I think a good proxy for complexity might be what I suggested above, i.e., “How much of the information you would ever need about your environment, both physical and social, did you have at (say) age 18?”

    Back to chronocentrism, if you’ll allow me to play The Last Psychiatrist for a second, what I would really like to see is a test whether there is any relationship between the “end of history” illusion and narcissism. The Quoidbach et al. article finds that most everyone suffers from chronocentrism; I just wonder if the depth of the bias is stronger among younger people (and, if so, does the relationship attenuate over time, or is it truly a generational shift).