It’s rare that scientific journals explicitly engage philosophical conundrums, but a paper in this week’s Science magazine begins with the question “Why do people so often make decisions that their future selves regret?” At age 18, that skull-and-crossbones tattoo seems like an unimpeachably cool idea; at 28, it’s mortifying. You meet the man of your dreams at 25—except that your dreams have become so different by 35 that you end up divorced.
“Even at 68, people think, ‘Ugh. I’m not the person I was at 58. But I’m sure I’ll be this way at 78,’” says one of the Science study authors, Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of the book Stumbling on Happiness.
An obvious answer to the question is that people mature—that “change is inevitable,” as Disraeli said, that “change is constant.” But after examining the responses of more than 19,000 people gathered over four months in 2011 and 2012, the researchers—Gilbert, Jordi Quoidbach, of the National Fund for Scientific Research in Belgium, and University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson—discovered that even though most people acknowledge that their lives have changed over the past decade, they don’t believe change is constant.