Psychologists discover “end of history illusion”

  • January 5, 2013

Capitalism & Crisis

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.

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