Our evolving personalities (and politics)

One of the common maxims I’ve been hearing all my life is that people tend to be liberal when they are younger, but grow more conservative as they get older, have to work, pay taxes and prepare for retirement. I’ve said it myself more times than I can count, and I’ve found it to be largely true, at least through personal observation. But I also see claims going in the opposite direction.

It applies to more than politics, though. Movies, books, music… possibly even food. Do our tastes really change all that much as we age? And more to the point, do we ever really “stabilize” at some point in middle age or do we keep on evolving for our entire lives? There’s a pretty good article this weekend in the LA Times about studies done on this subject by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert.

According to his own research, Gilbert is hardly alone in having imagined that he’d always like the same music, or hobbies or friends…

Calling it the “end of history illusion,” he and his colleagues suggested that the phenomenon may help explain why people make decisions they later regret: marrying the wrong person or buying an expensive vacation home.

“We recognize it in teenagers,” Gilbert said. “We say to them, ‘You’re not going to like that Megadeth tattoo in 10 years.’ But no matter how old you are, you’re making the same mistake.”

It’s easy to point to kids in their teens or early twenties and sagely nod our heads, thinking, “you’ll get it when you’re older.” But do we ever get to the point where “the cake is baked,” as Gilbert put it? He tried to test it scientifically.

Recruiting viewers of a popular French documentary hosted by study coauthor Jordi Quoidbach, a postdoctoral researcher in Gilbert’s lab, the scientists assigned some to answer questions designed to arrive at core aspects of their identity and to predict how those responses might differ 10 years in the future. Among other things, subjects were asked to list their favorite foods or hobbies, rank values such as success and security, or answer a standard questionnaire designed to home in on personality traits like conscientiousness and emotional stability.

Other volunteers were asked to consider the same traits, but report how they had changed in the past decade.

Pairing up future-focused predictors and backward-looking reporters — such that the predictions of 25-year-olds were compared to the recollections of 35-year-olds, for instance — the researchers found that people consistently acknowledged they had changed a lot in the past but underestimated how much they would change in the future. The results held true for each decade of life between ages 18 and 68.

I’m trying to understand if it’s even possible for people to keep changing over the entire span of their lives, and if that applies to all aspects of our preferences and personalities, or only some things. And is the change only in one direction, at least in areas where a “direction” can be inferred? Going back to politics for a moment, even if you were shifting over time from a liberal perspective to a more conservative one – or vice versa – there’s only so far you can go, right? Or do some people zig and zag from liberal to conservative back to liberal again?

On other things, Gilbert found similar results. In the field of music, he notes that he once thought he’d be listening to Miles Davis until he died, but today he doesn’t listen to much music. As for me, I still listen to pretty much the same stuff I did during my formative years – and for the most part, the same bands and songs. I never really shifted. It doesn’t feel like my tastes in food have changed much either, though I’ve added some new options to the menu.

Am I just blocking things out… whitewashing my past to make it seem as if I’m more consistent? How have those of you who’ve seen more than a few winters come and go observed yourself changing? Or not changing, I suppose. (And no, we don’t need to hear from you whippersnappers in your teens and early twenties on this one. We already know that you know everything and are smarter than everyone else. I know I was at your age. Pfffffft)