The ‘end of history illusion’ keeps us from understanding just how much we’ll change in the future.
Justan “Sharpie” Carlson has been a tattoo artist for eight years. Currently working in Rock Island, Ill., he says about one-fifth of his work involves correcting or covering up tattoos no one wants to see anymore.
“I probably do more cover-ups than the average artist,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “I also really like doing cover-ups. I enjoy taking something they hate and making it into something they love.”
The tattoos Carlson and other artists cover-up with new illustration work include designs from untrained artists that people received at a young age. Carlson also regularly covers up “many, many, many names” of ex-lovers, a sign of many, many, many people’s inability to look into the future.
It’s rare to find someone with a tattoo who hasn’t heard, “you’ll regret it when you get older.” While most people are happy with their tattoos, some regret the semi-permanent decision they made at a young age.
But that’s part of growing up, isn’t it? Well, according to new research, humans aren’t so good at imagining ourselves and how we’ll change in the future. It’s part of a phenomenon known as the “end of history illusion.”
The Science Behind the Illusion
A new study in Science takes a close look at how people view themselves at their current age.
Psychologists from Harvard University, the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, and the National Fund for Scientific Research in Belgium surveyed more than 19,000 people ages 18 to 68. Each person was asked about his or her personality, values, and preferences.
The surprising result of the research was that everyone believed they had changed significantly in the past 10 years, yet no one thought they would change much in the next 10. No matter their age, everyone failed to understand the degree of change they would go through in the future. However, some in the scientific community have challenged the validity of the study because most of the participants were women.
“While this study had a few flaws, these results suggest that people find comfort in the idea that we know ourselves and that we’re evolved,” Dr. Rob Dobrenski, a psychologist in New York City not involved in the study, said. “Change isn’t always a good thing, and to think we’ve gone through most of our changes can be a comforting idea.”
The “end of history illusion” means that you believe the present moment—the one you’re in right this second—is the “watershed moment at which you have finally become the person you will be for the rest of your life.”
In essence, you believe you’ve reached the “final you” and that you won’t suffer the typical effects of aging, your tastes in music and fashion won’t change, and there won’t be a shift in your fundamental values.
Researchers note that this “end-of-history” mentality has us overpaying for future opportunities in order to indulge in what we like now—like getting a tattoo we like because we assume our tastes won’t change in a decade.
How to Keep Making Your Own History
Dobrenski said that being completely involved in the present does have major mental health advantages.
“An increased sense of well-being and connectedness immediately comes to mind. It can also help decrease anxiety and increases an appreciation for what we currently have,” he said. “A few minutes a day of mindfulness practice can lead to impressive gains.”
While there are certain changes we should see coming, such as graying hair and wrinkles, there are life events we can’t plan for and must adjust to accordingly. These changes can have a dramatic impact on our lives that we cannot foresee.
“Loss is often a major precursor for a change in viewpoint: loss of a loved one, of health, of a job, etc. These events usually cause us to re-evaluate everything we have and what our lives will look like going forward,” Dobrenski said. “More benign circumstances like moving out can also lead to change, but I’ve noticed those shifts tend to be more transient.”
While it’s apparent that we’re better at looking back at our lives than we are at looking into the future, there are ways you can get a better idea of your future self without being blinded by the shortsightedness of the present. One way is to avoid behaviors with immediate returns but lasting negative impacts.
Looking Into the Future
Dobrenski said that we can use our present to improve our future by engaging in mindfulness exercises, such as meditation, breathing exercises, or focusing practices. Even a few minutes a day can help you remain in the present while still keeping an eye on the future.
“Make no mistake: mindfulness exercises don’t remove us from the future, at least not for long,” he said. “We’re still fully capable of considering the future and we’ll often snap back just by force of habit.”
The secret to getting a tattoo you won’t later regret, Carlson said, is finding something you know you’ll like way into the future. This includes avoiding trendy designs for trend’s sake and getting ink from a qualified artist.
“You just have to put thought into it,” he said. “Yes, being spontaneous is a good thing, but not with tattooing.”