Change in Self – Change in World

June 25, 2007 | By | 4 Replies More

Erich just uploaded a short post noting that Americans feel sourly about nearly everything. With no sign of optimism, and marked lack of trust in virtually all institutions, does it come as a surprise that people often sigh hopelessly over the “good old days”? Many people cling to an image of past glory and happiness, even when their fantasy “good old days” never existed. Several writers on the blog, Jason Rayl and me among them, have pointed out the inaccuracies of such perfect, imagined pasts.

So when we look back to a “good old day”, hold it up to the light of present times and see a glaring gap, has the world changed, or have our perceptions simply matured, become more jaded with time?

Some psychological research has delved into this tendency of human cognition to misperceive the past, and of our additional tendency to ignore the role that perception plays in how the world looks. A recent Cornell University study entitled “When Change in Self is Mistaken for Change in the World” (Eibach, Libby & Gilovich, 2003) finds that:

“Personal changes in respondents (e.g., parenthood, financial change) were positively correlated with their assessments of various social changes (e.g., crime rates, freedom).”

Thus, if your world has improved in recent years, you may think that crime rates have lowered, drug abuse and dependency has shrunk, and that the country’s economy has brightened and bettered recently as well. But if things have gotten worse for you, perhaps you clamor for the “good old days” of yore.

And as it turns out, many generations before us have lamented about the worsening condition of the future. Eibach, Libby and Gilovich write:

“The belief that society is changing for the worse is not unique to this era. It has been evident in every generation of the United States since the late 18th century… Evidence of similar attitudes have been found among the ancient Greeks, and in myths of cultures as diverse as the Aztecs and Zoroastians.”

Eibach et al say that a huge flaw in human cognition fuels this frequent mistake. We have trouble noticing a change in ourselves, which leads us to look at the world with what these researchers call “a naïve realism”. Years of psychological research have revealed that we attempt to see our past and current selves as a cohesive whole, in spite of evidence that suggests the opposite. Historic research, for instance, reveals that we misremember our old attitudes and beliefs as in line with our current attitudes and beliefs, even if they have actually changed dramatically.

Writers here at Dangerous Intersection have deconstructed the idea of a whole “self” many times before. While we may perceive ourselves as a static self, neurologically, cognitively, and philosophically, it just doesn’t add up. Our day-to-day and year-to-year experiences shape how we see the world around us; we do not look at the world of a true “realist” (but we sure think we do).

As a result of this cognitive approach, we think that only the world outside of us changes, and ignore that our perceptions and attitudes alter with time as well. When we notice a change, we naturally attribute it to that dynamic, unreliable, ever-changing world, not our dynamic, unreliable, ever-changing selves. This brings us back to the Cornell study. Eibach et al compared life changes to participant reports of matters such as crime rates, the extent of American freedoms, and overall perceived danger in the world. In every instance, respondents who had experienced some kind of marked life change in recent years on average claimed that crime rates, freedom, and safety had similarly shifted (usually for the worse).

To highlight one example: recent parents (with children 8 or under) reported that the world had gotten more dangerous in the past ten years. Parents of older children, say 12 years old, reported that the world hadn’t gotten more dangerous in the last ten years, but that it certainly has in the last 15 years. But parenthood no doubt changes the way you see the world. Parenthood can make a reckless narcissist into a cautious interdependent.

Eibach et al account for this change in perceived danger that exact way: when you become a parent, you suddenly become aware of a whole new range of threats in the world, as guarding and protecting a life turns into a major concern. A single twenty-something doesn’t need to worry much about child predators or abductors, or burning their hand on the stove or accidentally drinking a household cleaning product. This all changes if they have a child. New parents have to opt for hyper-vigilance, and this ever-present awareness of all the little harms in the world makes life seem much more dangerous.

This research does leave one notable question: if view of the world stems mostly from current life condition, why do most people see the world as getting worse? We only hear musings about “way back when”, not celebrations of our bright, shining future. It seems a little hard to swallow that everyone’s life just keeps getting worse and worse. Eibach et al suggest that aging makes us more aware of our shortcomings, that our slow entropy embitters us and leaves us longing for a past filled with our vitality and youth, and (so we think) greater freedom, lower crime, and more honest, decent, hardworking people.

The findings of Eibach et al has far-reaching implications, as it accounts for many human behaviors, especially voting. The old adage that we get more conservative with age may hold, in fact, as we long more and more to return to “way back when”. Yet as long as human perception looks outward rather than inward, people will still wish for some unattainable, wonderful past. Sadly, nothing will bring us back to the days of our former glory and bliss, because those “good old days” just didn’t exist.

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Category: American Culture, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Psychology Cognition, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (4)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Historically, memory was considered a true reflection of experience. In the last few decades, research has shown that memory is actually very malleable and suggestible.

    Look at the basis of trial law (or History, or the Bible): Testimony.

    Testimony is someone attempting to persuade an audience that they honestly and accurately recall the experience of some event.

    They could be misrepresenting their own recall, lying for some gain.

    They might misremember though any number of many well-documented processes, not of their intent.

    They might not have accurately perceived the event in the first place, either because of poor observation or by being mislead by the event itself.

    All of these also factor in to how people perceive and report their own personal past.

  2. Mary says:

    The sure cure for seeing the past with rose-colored glasses is to study history, especially the newspapers of the past. When you see that the tragedies of the past are really not much different from the tragedies of today, you're much less likely to long for those "good old days."

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    I'm one of those parents who sees the world as more dangerous since I became a parent. I would put much of that fear on the current Administration due to it's reckless approach to world politics and its willingness to hand environmental and energy decision-making to polluters and energy producers. But you're right, that I trace much of my concern to the effects of these reckless moves on my children. After all, I'll certainly be gone in 60 years (maybe a lot sooner), but my children will have to deal with this mess.

    I also think you're right about assuming that we saw the world through our present lens of attitudes. As much as I'd like to believe otherwise, back in grade school I was a little neo-con. The first president I voted for was Reagan. But then things don't always run along the predicted trajectory, do they? This blog is pretty good evidence that I took a left turn, and I can't really put a finger on where or how that happened.

    I do need to mention that many studies of older folks indicate that they are actually happier as old people than they were when younger. This result is interesting and, yes, somewhat nuanced. Here's where I got my info: "Causes and Correlates of Happiness," in Well-Being, by Michael Argyle, found it The Foundations of hedonic Psychology, by Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener and Norbert Schwarz, ed. Argyle writes: "Many surveys of happiness or satisfaction have found a small increase in happiness with age, with a correlation of about .10." Here's another quote: "In several studies it has been found that while men become happier with age, women become less happy. He also cites to studies that find that "religion is important to the happiness of the elderly."

    Your post is full of good ideas and observations. Thanks.

  4. Erika Price says:

    You've got it right about "old people", Erich. Older people generally have less neuroticism, have higher self-esteem, and much more mental independence than their younger counterparts. They don't cave under social factors that typically cause conformity (old folks don't go along with the Milgram experiment, for instance), and they generally report more satisfaction with life than ever they have at another juncture. Perhaps we have some kind of biological foundation to quell our fear of death by making us more easygoing advanced adults? Or maybe experience does just breed the "wisdom" we so often hear that the aged have. Whatever the reason, it makes the old age that society tells us to fear far less ominous.

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