„Panta Rhei“ is probably the best-known legacy of Heraclitus – a Greek philosopher who lived around 500 BC. Panta Rhei describes the constant flow of everything and is the reason why „you cannot step twice into the same river“. In just a tiny fraction of a second, the composition of molecules at one specific point in the river will have changed, rendering it impossible to enter the exact same river twice. But this concept is not limited to the physical flow of rivers. According to Heraclitus, it also applies to life: „Change is the only constant in life.“ And everybody will intuitively agree with this notion of constant change in life.
Every day, we make decisions that affect our life - some of them in a very obvious way such as changing the job; others in a more subtle way such as starting to follow the news. And although we don’t really know how these decisions will affect our future life, we can be sure that it will be very different from our life right now. We just need to think about our life ten years ago in order to realize how change is happening. Which people did you spend the most time with back then? What did you talk about when you met each other? Which city did you live in and what was your favorite music band? Reflecting on these question will likely make you realize how much some aspects of your life have changed.
However, people are surprisingly inaccurate when it comes to predicting how much they will change in the future. In 2013, researchers from Harvard University published a paper summarizing multiple studies that investigated people’s perception of change in life. In these studies, more than 19.000 people aged between 18 and 68 were asked to report how much their personality, their values or their personal preferences (such as taste in music) changed throughout the last decade or how much they predict these aspects of life to change in the upcoming ten years.
When the researchers compared the responses given by people aged „a“ years with the responses given by people aged „a+10“ years, they found something remarkable: People aged „a“ years predicted their personality, values or preferences to change a lot less in the next decade than people aged „a+10“ years reported when they evaluated the actual change. What does that mean? It means that people constantly and significantly underestimate how much they are going to change in the future. This is even the case for stable personality traits like our degree of extraversion or neuroticism.
The researcher label this phenomenon the „end of history-illusion“. People seem to regularly fall for the trap of thinking that life doesn’t change that much any more – right now is the end of the history and everything in the future will be closely related to their present self.
With publishing this paper, the researchers also made a powerful case for the so called growth mindset. The notion of a growth mindset was developed by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. In her book „Mindset: The New Psychology of Success“, she differentiates between two types of mindsets: the growth mindset and the fixed mindset. People with a growth mindset believe in the ability to change their basic qualities. They are convinced that it is possible to develop new skills or to improve their intelligence, but they also know that it will take time. In contrast, people with a fixed mindset believe that they cannot really change who they are and what they are capable of.
So, if you want to or not, you are going to change. But how you are going to change is your decision.
Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel T. Gilbert, Timothy D. Wilson (2013): “The End of History Illusion” Science 339:96-98.
Carol S. Dweck (2007): “Mindset: The Psychology of Success”