Dana Parsons says she barely recognizes the person she was 10 years ago. At 25, she was a daredevil fitness fanatic who liked her music loud, her booze cheap and her relationships breezy.
But Parsons, now a business manager in St. John's, cuts a very different figure today. She has traded wrinkled T-shirts for black dresses, and party crowds for close friends. Along the way, Parsons says, she has become less competitive, more empathetic and more determined to make a difference in the world.
The changes have come as a surprise, she adds. "I would never have realized that my personality, my perspective on things and my activities would take such a 90-degree turn."
But Parsons' experience is consistent with new research showing that people change significantly throughout their lives, although adults of all ages insist they won't change much in the future.
Harvard psychologists Jordi Quoidbach and Daniel Gilbert – author of Stumbling on Happiness – call this phenomenon "the end of history illusion."
People view the present as a "watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives," they wrote in a study published early this month in the journal Science.
Gilbert and Quoidbach, along with Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia, measured the personalities, values and preferences of more than 19,000 people, ranging in age from 18 to 68.
As part of the study, they asked participants to report how much they had changed in the past 10 years and to predict how much they would change in the next decade. The researchers found a consistent gap between the two measures. For example, the average 38-year-old surveyed expected less change in the next 10 years than the average 48-year-old reported had occurred in the previous decade.
As one might expect, younger people in the study reported more dramatic changes than did older participants. Nevertheless, people of all ages said they had changed a great deal in the previous decade – but did not expect significant future changes.
Was the discrepancy a matter of faulty recall? The researchers ruled out this possibility in a separate test. They analyzed data from a sample of 3,800 Americans aged 20 to 75 whose personalities had been assessed in 1995-96 and again a decade later. The degree of personality change was "strikingly similar" to the changes reported by participants in the Harvard study, Quoidbach says, and "way higher than participants' predicted change."
At every stage of life, he notes, people make decisions that their future selves regret. It might be the prenup agreement they never signed, the hefty mortgage on the "forever house" that can't accommodate a wheelchair, or the butterfly tattoo on the navel that doesn't look so hot with stretch marks.
"We change way more than we realize," he says.
Earlier studies have shown that as people age, they tend to become more conscientious and more agreeable, as well as less extroverted, less neurotic and less open to new experiences (which may account for the expression "set in their ways").
But these shifts in personality are minor compared to the radical changes in preferences and core values we may experience, Quoidbach says. For example, a hip-hop fan may become a classical-music aficionado, while a 30-year-old environmental activist may find herself happily flying around the world in her 40s.
Many people mistakenly believe in a fixed identity because they have trouble imagining a different self – and confuse this difficulty with the unlikelihood of change itself, Quoidbach and colleagues suggest.
The massive self-help industry attests to our desire to modify aspects of our lives, but when it comes to our essential selves, "most people believe that their personalities are attractive, their values admirable, and their preferences wise," the authors write.
And with attributes this great, why would anyone want to change?
Part of the "end of the history illusion," however, is the notion that change is within our control. Although Quoidbach and colleagues did not look at the reasons why people change, he points out that unforeseen events, life stages such as parenthood, and factors such as declining health in old age may alter us in ways we cannot imagine.
In Parsons' case, a diagnosis of a genetic heart condition in her mid-20s put an end to her carefree ways and involvement in competitive sports. She passed up a job in Turkey for health reasons and adopted what she calls a "Zen lifestyle."
At times, Parsons says, she is wistful for the fearless person she used to be. But she adds, "I'm happy with both people – they're just so different."