Thinking about the Prospective Thinking

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life. – Steve Jobs

I believe our prospective thinking (thinking about the future) is weaker than our retrospective memory (thinking about the past). Both have their weaknesses. Today, I wanted to reflection on the future thinking (aka prospective thinking).

Why is that we are less likely to accurately predict our future (habits, lifestyle, values, and career)? Looking back, I have consistently underestimated as to how much I will change.

Biases that affect Prospective Thinking

Not surprisingly, there are biases that influence us to significantly underestimate how we will or need to change to become the person we expect to be. These biases are;

  • End of History Illusion – Our tendency to underestimate how much we will change and grow in the future.
  • Availability Heuristic – Our tendency to only factor in what we can remember quickly or what we visually see.

Putting aside the shortcomings and criticism of the above biases, they do provide some food for thought when evaluating your own prospective thinking.

Why we underestimate the future change

The research collaborators from Harvard and University of Virginia, started with a few theories to test including the likelihood of people to overestimate their own accomplishments. Dr. Quoidbach explains;

“Believing that we just reached the peak of our personal evolution makes us feel good. The ‘I wish that I knew then what I know now’ experience might give a sense of satisfaction and meaning, whereas realizing how transient our preferences and values are might lead us to doubt every decision and generate anxiety.”

Another explanation is that human brain dislikes uncertainty. A separate research found that installing an inexpensive timer for next arrival at each bus stop increased customer satisfaction by a whopping 140% – more so than investing millions in increasing the bus’s speed. Thus, our brains are naturally wired to subconsciously avoid such times that require mental energy. “People may confuse the difficulty of imaging personal change with unlikelihood of change itself” the authors wrote in their research.

One of the greatest downside of the “end of history illusion” is that it makes us vulnerable to decisions that we regret in the near future. Decision about getting a tattoo, personal, and drugs which happen to mostly occur during teenage years. During teenage years, the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the center of reasoning and decision-making, is still underdevelopment when it is disturbed by hormones. Thus, there is no doubt that the teenage years are the time of rolling emotions and bad judgement.

The “end of history illusion” effect suggests a potential failure in personal imagination for each of us. We often share deeply rooted memories about our past but then make vague projections of the near future.

When you were a child did you not think you would hold onto your Barbie doll or action figure forever? They will be your toy forever? Our brains are hard-wired in a way which favors continuity in our thoughts. It tends to project the future based on previous memories and experiences regardless of their nature. Consciously knowing the weaknesses of our brains to project the person we expect to be, how would you make sure to not let these weaknesses come in the way of who you want to be?

Further reading on Prospecthing Thinking

While contemplating this topic, I read and found insights from the following resources;

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