The Psychology of Your Future

The gist: We often underestimate how much our future selves will change. We tend to think that we’ve recently become the people that we were always meant to be and value “now” the most until it becomes the past.

Dan Gilbert talks about our misconception about the power of time. While the past has proven that we’ve all been constantly changing, we are still inclined to believe that future changes will slow down, if not stop completely. Dan calls this the “end of history” illusion.

While our favorite bands 10 years ago might not matter as much to us anymore, we believe that our dream vacation now will still be our top destination 10 years from now. But in reality, our values, preferences, and even personalities all change over time. It is true that the changes tend to slow down as you age, but we are never in a state as stable as we believe ourselves to be in.

“It’s as if, for most of us, the present is a magic time. It’s a watershed on the timeline. It’s the moment at which we finally become ourselves. Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our life is change.”

This quote really hits it home for me. Every few years I look back and marvel at how much I’ve changed. Yet I still find myself waiting to reach that point in life where I finally have it all figured out, all pieces of my personal history have come together, and I have become the person that I will be for the rest of my life. But experiences have taught me that it’s never the case.

Changes in the past don’t bother us; it’s the unknown in the future that we cannot, or refuse to, imagine. But they are inevitable. One of the most calming things one of my friends has said to me is, you may or may not be at the same spot a couple years down the road, but you are exactly where you are supposed to be now.

Are we in control of our own decisions?

The gist: We are not as ration or in control as we think we are with our decisions. We are constantly and unknowingly influenced by how the options are presented to us.

“…If we understood our cognitive limitations in the same way that we understand our physical limitations, even though they don’t stare us in the face in the same way, we could design a better world.”

We tend to think that we are blessed with rationality thus must be able to make appropriate judgments based on our preferences. But that’s just not the case. Dan Ariely uses a series of cognitive illusions to show that half of the time, we really don’t know what we want!

One example he uses shows that people’s choices of agreeing to organ donation are largely dependent upon what the default option is. Some might say, we choose the default because we don’t care about this. But Dan says that it’s the opposite. It’s because this subject is so complex and difficult that we don’t know what to do. Under such circumstances, we just pick whatever was chosen for us. What an interesting point—how often are we guilty of this illusion? How often do we just go with the default because it’s easy?

The newspaper subscription experiment shows that we are especially susceptible to the way options are laid out when we are unsure about our preferences. In other words, unless you are absolutely sure that you only want option A and hate option B with passion, your final choice can be greatly influenced by the presentation.

Of course it’s not realistic to completely avoid cognitive illusions. After all, we are just humans. But like Dan said, being aware of our limitations is crucial to designing a better world.

Thinking, Fast and Slow


“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it”

Concise, witty, and thought-provoking. This quote represents the style of the book quite well!

I took me a while to finish this highly acclaimed book. I had to constantly put it down and think about how it links to my own actions. I would recommend everybody to read it. It challenges the way you think! Kahneman introduces many psychological phenomena that undermine our daily judgments without us noticing. Here are some of my favorite ones (probably because I’ve fallen for all of them):

“System 1” vs. “System 2”

Our brains operate in two separate systems. System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional; “System 2” is slower, more intentional, and more rational. Unfortunately, we are more likely to think with “System 1” since it takes less effort. Ultimately we need to remind ourselves to stop being lazy, and think more than what our “intuition” tells us.

Loss Aversion

People prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. As a simple example in the book, people are more upset about losing $100 than happy about gaining $100. This is because of the endowment effect–people value a good that they own more than an identical good that they do not own.

Personally, this probably explains why my house used to be full of stuff that I got from random places. Let it be an old CD player, a dress that’s too big, or a bottle of lotion with a scent that I no longer liked—once I own an item, it becomes infinitely more valuable, and I wouldn’t throw it away even though it had no use. But luckily, the past 4 years of constantly moving around made me better at avoid the endowment effect—I realize that not many things are worth the effort of packing and dragging them to new apartments.

Loss aversion also explains why people have a hard time letting the past go. People hold onto memories because they fear that the future might not be as great. But this is only because they put too much value in the state they are currently in. Continue reading