Psychologists discover “end of history illusion”

by Jerome Roos on January 5, 2013

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Scientists claim that a psychological phenomenon making people incapable of anticipating future change reflects a “failure in personal imagination”.

This week, Science published a fascinating psychological research with profound social, political and philosophical implications. In a large study measuring the personalities, values and preferences of over 19,000 people, a group of three psychologists from the Universities of Harvard and Virginia found that people of all age groups — even while claiming to have changed a lot in the past — tend to systematically underestimate how much their personalities, values and preferences will change in the future.

Dubbing this belief “the end of history illusion”, the authors conclude that “people, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person that they will be for the rest of their lives.” The study went on to list a number of practical consequences, including the tendency to overpay for future opportunities in order to indulge in their present preferences. But of all the implications of the study, the most obvious one is never explicitly spelled out by the researchers.

For a political economist like myself, the question that immediately arises is: what are the political implications of these findings? Obviously, the notion of the “end of history” is a political-philosophical idea coined by Hegel. By way of the French philosopher Alexandre Kojève it was subsequently picked up by the American political economist Francis Fukuyama, who used the concept to argue that the fall of the Soviet Union inaugurated the ultimate triumph of Western liberal democracy and capitalism.

“What we may be witnessing,” Fukuyama wrote in his infamous 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, “is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In a way, Fukuyama provided the perfect ideological underpinning for Thatcher’s claim that “there is no alternative”.

In recent years, however, Fukuyama’s thesis has been brutally shaken by real-world events. As I wrote in a 2011 article, the crisis of global capitalism and the global revolutionary wave that began with the Arab uprisings marked the End of the End of History. As I wrote back then, “what is being shattered is not so much the democratic capitalist system as such, but rather the Utopian belief that this system is the only way to organize social life in the eternal pursuit of freedom, equality and happiness.”

Rejecting the institutions of liberal democracy, activists around the world have brought to the fore new forms of social organization, along with radically different values and preferences, all revolving around the notion of direct democracy, mutual aid, leaderless self-organization, and voluntary association. Today’s revolutionaries do not make demands upon the political system. Rather, through direct action, they prefigure a present that is yet to come — a new world waiting to be born inside the old.

But the representatives of the old world can’t see it. Rather than facing the inevitability of future change, conservatives cling onto the past while liberals forever praise the immortal wonders of the present. In a dramatic depiction of the lack of imagination at the End of History, it has been noted that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. In the absence of a genuine hope for social change, all we seem capable of imagining today is environmental change — or rather, catastrophe.

Why are we so incapable of imagining the type of changes — both individual and social — that still lie ahead? According to the authors of the Science article, one reason is “the well-documented tendency of people to overestimate their own wonderfulness.” If we are so great in the present, why would we want to change in the future? But while there is certainly a dramatic overestimation of the wonderfulness of liberal democracy and global capitalism, there seems to be more at play here.

Most importantly, the predictability of the future seems to provide us with a sense of security. While past changes have helped us made us who we are today, future changes are by their very definition unknowable, and therefore threaten our painstakingly constructed notion of Self. For most people, there is something profoundly troubling about the idea that we may not be able to recognize our own values and preferences a decade from now. A similar fear appears to bedevil prospects of social change.

But whatever happens, the only thing that ever stays the same is that everything changes. As Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas put it in the latest EZLN communiqué, they don’t need us to fail; and we don’t need them to succeed. The capitalist state will self-destruct without revolutionaries; and the revolution can go on without the capitalist state. Radical change is inevitable. Those deliberately closing their eyes to this reality are merely caught in End of History illusion.

Not that we didn’t know that already. But now we have the proof.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Boyd Collins January 6, 2013 at 02:38

Subcomandante Marcos’s pronouncement that “They don’t need us to fail” is a succinct encapsulation of the current way forward for progressive forces. Capitalism, as we know it today, will destroy itself because it has chosen to cut itself off from the forces of renewal, encasing itself in a cocoon of self-delusion. Without constantly expanding sources of energy, it will implode. The capitalist mentality is becoming more and more transparently pathological. The most effective strategy may be to start building the new forms of society now and stop wasting energy on social forms that will fail of their accord.

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Ernesto Unionista January 6, 2013 at 19:00

How does the narcissist grapple with the “end of history’? How does he face the reality that all he has become proves wrong or is outdated? How does the control freak admit that all he has become is irrelevant to the future? How does he control future events that are unforseen? This article is a great underpinning to any discussion about politics and the right vs. the left.

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dave January 7, 2013 at 04:26

I love this blog and I love Jerome, but you have struck a nerve: The worst currents, the most counterrevolutionary tendencies which have derailed the Left, whether they be mainstream or revisionist, have been born of the enfeebling fallacy that capitalism will self-destruct. It never has, and it never will. This is not the place for a critique of Marx’ Critique of Political Economy, nor for a historical survey of the inane polcies various Leftist factions have adopted as a result of this lunacy. [Although if the reader is interested, research on the doings of the German Social Democrats and the German Communists between the World Wars will reveal some mind-numbing mistakes. It may not be an exaggeration to say that the failure of the German Revolution was attributable in largest part to this single miscalculation.]

“The capitalist state will self-destruct without revolutionaries”? Oh no it will not. The capitalist state is not going to whimper away now or ever–it has to be defeated!

Of less import: I think the phrase is properly rendered “They don’t need us in order to fail.” As written above, it is understood as “They don’t need that we fail,” which is not what is meant.

Happy new year to all ROARers! Maybe this year…

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anthony lemos January 16, 2013 at 16:37

sorry dave but i think you have misunderstood the text.

you completely lose me as soon as you mention ‘Left’. there is no left, no right.. the circus they entertain us with every four or so years and call elections. that epic battle between right and left ideologies is just pure fantasy. its the fleece over our eyes.

the revolution, silent or not is beyond that. the real challenge is the change within us. its the letting go of what is in order to evolve. because the capitalist state will self destruct. it will consume itself like a burning tree. a cancer consuming its host. now the question is will it burn out before killing its host or will it die out before that stage.

this is where i think marcos is taking the wrong attitude. we can in fact just sit and wait for it to happen. and it will. economic growth relies on the ever increasing consumtion of natural finite resourses. thats where money is made. because its a pillage its ‘free’. so if we just wait. we are left with a smouldering ember in the end. at its worst we will have consumed every available resource and there will some fat rich guy. we cant wait for that to happen. change has to be forced long before then. anything that puts life itself at risk has to be stopped.

change is beyond politics. its beyond ideologies and flags. it cant be labed or categorized. the real revolution begins in our own subconscious. it comes along as we take notion that we are not infact a species of demi-gods. we are just another species of animal that relies on a planet for survival. break the machine and we go. and beecause of it we all have a right to it. our desire for power and wealth cannot put this at risk. we cant fix it when its dead.

even so revolution has to be persued. it has to be conquered. as the text states, humans ‘tend to systematically underestimate how much their personalities, values and preferences will change in the future’. Maybe more than that. maybe we are unable to see how much we CAN change and so believe that some changes are just impossible. which is in complete contradiction to the demigod mentality of the capitalist world.

real power however lies in the individual. the individual who is conscious of his own worth. his own power to change. the individual who responds for his own actions, who knows who he is and recognizes what he is. Then he will begin to truly pay the universe the respect it deserves because his life and the life of his descendants relies on it.

as to the quote from marcos the frase is correct. as is yours. the original just has less words in the frase.

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anthony lemos January 16, 2013 at 16:45

i appologize for all the errors.

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# OCCUPY HISPANIA - IBERIA - LUSITANIA - INDIGNADOS # January 27, 2013 at 12:26

Agree – Deacuerdo

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Occupy Las Vegas January 29, 2013 at 05:29

as the final machine, crumbling, out of fuel,
grinds to a halt
and spits its shrapneled gears into the wasted world,

the earth’s last fat man, nervous, guards his plate.
“god damn that fly!”
she watches in bemusement as she lays her eggs.

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Job Harms February 24, 2014 at 00:49

Very interesting post!

Makes wonder if a similar “end of history bias” would also pertain to our predictions about future personality & values of other people?!

Also, this makes me think of the “i knew it all along effect” – defined by wikepedia as “…the inclination to see events that have already occurred as being more predictable than they were before they took place” –> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindsight_bias

Seems to me that a common denominator here is that we tend to underestimate the extent to which our values & beliefs change over time.

Also interesting are some of the answers to the 2008 Edge question “what have you changed your mind about?” –> http://edge.org/q2008/q08_index.html

I look forward to future ROAR posts to further change my mind!

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