The illusion of consistency

by Chris Bertram on January 5, 2013

The New York Times has an interesting piece on the variability of people’s personalities, tastes and opinions over time and how we tend to underestimate the amount we will change in the future:

when asked to predict what their personalities and tastes would be like in 10 years, people of all ages consistently played down the potential changes ahead. Thus, the typical 20-year-old woman’s predictions for her next decade were not nearly as radical as the typical 30-year-old woman’s recollection of how much she had changed in her 20s. This sort of discrepancy persisted among respondents all the way into their 60s. And the discrepancy did not seem to be because of faulty memories, because the personality changes recalled by people jibed quite well with independent research charting how personality traits shift with age. People seemed to be much better at recalling their former selves than at imagining how much they would change in the future.

This wouldn’t have come as any surprise to Montaigne, whose whole project was predicated on the idea of constant change in the self:

I am unable to stabilize my subject: it staggers confusedly along with a natural drunkenness. I grasp it as it is now, at this moment when I am lingering over it. I am not portraying being but becoming: not the passage from one age to another … but from day to day, from minute to minute. I must adapt this account of myself to the passing hour. (“On repenting”, Screech trans 908-9)

But how much this contradicts the central presupposition of much intellectual biography, which is to find as much consistency as possible among the attitudes and doctrines adopted by a person throughout their life.



Neville Morley 01.05.13 at 11:47 am

Not only to find as much consistency as possible – or at any rate to identify a single dramatic turning point, a division between e.g. Early Marx and Late Marx, as a basic principle of interpretation – but also to criticise anything that can be labelled as inconsistency, and to assume that this undermines the credibility of the ideas.


Neil 01.05.13 at 12:00 pm

I am not a great consumer of biographies, but intuitively I would have expected a pull toward a different narrative: not consistency but development. Certainly when one reads intellectual biographies, it is common to depict a thinker whose work underwent significant changes as moving toward a grand culmination. You might depict, eg, Foucault or Wittgenstein as just changing their minds, but the biographies I’ve read depict the process as almost a Hegelian Aufhebung (in that the later stages include and subsume the earlier).


herr doktor bimler 01.05.13 at 12:15 pm

People seemed to be much better at recalling their former selves than at imagining how much they would change in the future.
So we are better at recalling the past than predicting the future?
I would never have expected that.


Mark English 01.05.13 at 2:01 pm

I’m not sure what the point is here. Consistency means different things in different contexts, surely, and in most cases it is a relative notion.

So there are standard patterns of personality change, and these no doubt affect taste and opinion (to a greater or lesser extent). Of course people’s ideas change over time, including intellectual ideas (theories and so on). And the cultural and intellectual context changes too.

Any decent intellectual biography explores the changes and inevitable inconsistencies as well as trying to see a (or several) unifying theme(s). But doesn’t this just reflect how we think about ourselves and others? There is no final, definitive story, but the partial stories we produce are worth something if they are honest and insightful.


Chris Bertram 01.05.13 at 2:50 pm

My point, Mark, is just that someone interpreting the thought of some important thinker of the past (Marx, Rousseau, Hegel, whoever) is inevitably going to do their best to interpret their statements over a lifetime in ways that render them coherent, and this will generate an impression of greater stability and consistency in their thinking than seems likely to have been the case given the psychological (and, indeed, introspective) evidence.


William Timberman 01.05.13 at 2:57 pm

CB @ 5

I’m not so sure. Reflecting on my own internal monologue — how German is that? — it seems to me that it’s changed very little since I first became aware of it, say at the age of 6 or so. What’s different are the accretions of experience, and as critics in my own circle have said often enough, the effects of too much damned introspection. Isn’t this some subset of the nature/nurture arguments that’ve gone on for ages?


PJW 01.05.13 at 3:54 pm

Chris, do you think this is related to the persistence of identity over time, the Ship of Theseus paradox, Heraclitan flux, and that sort of thing? It’s been awhile since I’ve looked at this stuff, but the idea of essence seemed important if I’m recalling correctly. The gist of that concept is that we are continuously changing but our essence remains the same. I was also wondering if Barthes’ theory about the death of the author come into play at all here?

A link to an entry on Personal Identity:


Eszter 01.05.13 at 4:24 pm

Interesting point, Chris (about the stability that may get superimposed on intellectual contributions in retrospect). The following is not about this, but hopefully sufficiently on topic. The idea of people not having a good sense of how much they will change seems quite plausible. And this is precisely why I have a hard time understanding how people make decisions about tattoos. Those tend to be permanent (although I realize they can be removed, but that seems to have its own costs). How can the self know today what permanent marker one would want on oneself 30 years down the line or even just a decade down the line? Do we know much about later-life regrets concerning tattoos?


Jim Buck 01.05.13 at 4:27 pm

Pace Montaigne et al I’m with William @6 on this. Since my induction into the written word (about the age of 6) I have pursued, and discarded, many self-narratives; but all that has the appearance of taking place within the field of a sense of self, acquired somewhat earlier.


Jim Buck 01.05.13 at 4:44 pm

Ezter, I got drunk for the very first time when I was 15. Under the influence of 2.5 pints of Tetley’s beer I paid a tattooist to scar my right forearm with this legend:

There are no kings inside the gates of Eden

Looking at in the bath, later, I was horrified; but being a big fan, at the time, it was no big deal. A couple of Dylan albums later, it was such a grave embarrassment that I developed an avoidance of short sleeves. If it could be removed without a trace then it would be, but it can’t. Still, the semiotics constantly change—unlike: me—who appears, to himself, to remain pretty much the same.


Kaveh 01.05.13 at 4:52 pm

@8, I knew someone in college who had a very big, prominent Marxist-themed tatoo on their wrist that read (IIRC) “through struggle we are transformed”, and when I asked ‘you’re not worried that you’ll be embarrassed by this years from now?’, responded ‘if I ever feel that way I should really reconsider my priorities’.


grackle 01.05.13 at 5:39 pm

My reaction to the Times article was that it was remarkably content-free. I s it even true that humans change much throughout life? Superficial tastes may change but even there surely everyone is aware of the persistence of such things as the taste in music-one-liked-when-young,, a sign of sentimentality more than change. Maybe if change is defined as a general crystallization of essential characteristics such that, as seems to be the case, one is rarely surprised by the choices of those one encounters relatively often. Think, for instance, of the trajectory of your parents’ lives, are they really not true to form?


tomslee 01.05.13 at 6:32 pm

Kaveh’s friend at #11 reminds me of my brother, who said (at age 20) “they say if you’re not a socialist at age 20, you’re heart’s in the wrong place, and if you are still a socialist at age 25, your head’s in the wrong place. What I want to know is, who is to say the 25-year-old is right?”

FWIW, he is well over 25 now and would still call himself a socialist.


PatrickinIowa 01.05.13 at 7:31 pm

I completely agree with the NY Times article.


PatrickinIowa 01.05.13 at 7:38 pm

I completely disagree with the NY Times article.

I think you take the point. We’re not even consistent at one point in time, much less over decades. (I did my dissertation on Thomas More’s attitudes toward capital punishment, which were, at any given time, pro-, anti-, and proto-sociological, depending on the genre he was working in.) For me, there’s a lot of validity to the Buddhist notion that the integral, coherent self is an illusion.

I got my first tattoo when I was fifty. My son, then 10, planted himself in the doorway, and demanded to know where I was going. I told him I was going to get inked. He looked up, serious as hell, and said, “Dad, have you thought about this?” I said, “I started thinking about it 25 years ago.” “Oh,” he said, “Okay.” Je regrette rien.


Kiwanda 01.05.13 at 8:55 pm

I had the impression that most people’s musical tastes (maybe even the specific music they listen to) is pretty much set at age twenty or so.

This Master’s thesis seems to suggest otherwise, though I couldn’t get any single strong statement out of it.

I suppose the degree of change is different from the accuracy of predicting the degree of change.

By the way, the Science article that the Times article discusses is here.


ponce 01.05.13 at 9:27 pm

It’s a lot easier to predict the past than to predict the future.


JSE 01.05.13 at 11:00 pm


John Quiggin 01.05.13 at 11:22 pm

My own introspection suggests the opposite. I think I’ve improved a bit on some long-recognized flaws in my personality/behavior, but not as much as I would have hoped/expected (eg excessively argumentative and loud, probably not helped by the discovery of blogging ten years ago). My political&economic views have varied a bit, back and forth over time, but without a lot of net change over 40 years or so – I would have expected at least that we would have more conclusive evidence on, for example, macroeconomic policy by now. And my musical and cultural tastes were pretty much set by my early 20s as observed above.

But observation suggests that I’m an exception, particularly as regards political views


garymar 01.06.13 at 12:51 am

On the other hand, I’ve always been taken by Nietzsche’s comment: “I did that says my memory. I can’t have done that says my pride. Eventually…memory yields.”


Kiwanda 01.06.13 at 12:57 am

I wish my memory was that malleable. Embarrassment and guilt are gifts that keep on giving.


Anthony 01.06.13 at 4:25 am

Michael Slote, in Beyond Optimizing, has a chapter called “Rational Restrictions Based on Past History.” He gives an example of someone who has long wanted to see the Pyramids and finally makes a brief visit to Egypt. When told that another ancient site would be at least as interesting, he decides to see that instead. Slote:

To say “I’ll get just as much from seeing the Temple of Karnak, so I might just as well see it,” when one has always wanted to see the Pyramids and never previously heard of the Temple, seems quirkily changeable, volatile, fickle, capricious, and in this context these are terms of rational, not moral, criticism.


Dr. Hilarius 01.06.13 at 5:29 am

Looking back, I don’t see any abrupt discontinuities in my personality. There has been incremental change over the decades such that some portions of my personality have greatly changed. Are these changes to subsidiary aspects of myself or to the fundamental me? By nature I’m shy and dislike conflict. 20+ years as a trial attorney have taught me how to be confrontational and intrusive in very public spaces. But I don’t feel as if I’m now a confrontational in-your-face kind of person. Given the choice, I still prefer to be private and retiring. What or Who has changed? Don’t know.

I also find the Buddhist view of personality to ring true. Each moment of existence is cause for the next moment of existence but there is only the illusion of continuity. A bit like 24 frames a second producing the illusion of motion. But as the Gautama said: “these are questions tending not to edification.” It’s the life not the theory that matters.


garymar 01.06.13 at 5:45 am

I feel a continuity in myself going all the way back to puberty. Childhood is a different country entirely.


Nick 01.06.13 at 5:58 am

Anthony @22,

The fear of missing out on something better. That’s irrational. But to say, for instance, “Hey, I’m here now…and guess what, those dreams I had as a child aren’t as important to me as I thought they were…that temple does sound more interesting”, that’s not irrational. Only he can know if it was an irrational decision. An outsider, and the dilemma writer, can’t.

Maybe it was irrational, and he will regret it. If so, he’ll probably learn a valuable lesson about trusting his childhood self over unscrupulous guides playing on Western tourists’ stigmas. He won’t do the same thing again. But then, I’ve also regretted far too many rational decisions I’ve made in the past (again, who’s to say that thing I’ve thought all my life was right)…enough to have learnt to be cautious about over-rationalising, and that impulse and instinct will often leave me better off.


Matt McIrvin 01.06.13 at 2:56 pm

I rather suspect that I’m almost as dumb as I was at 13, and most of my day-to-day assumptions that my personality has changed since then are self-serving delusions.


Hermenauta 01.06.13 at 3:54 pm

@CB #5,

“someone interpreting the thought of some important thinker of the past (Marx, Rousseau, Hegel, whoever) is inevitably going to do their best to interpret their statements over a lifetime in ways that render them coherent, and this will generate an impression of greater stability and consistency in their thinking than seems likely to have been the case given the psychological (and, indeed, introspective) evidence.”

Not only “someone” but ourselves indeed.

I have just read “Incognito” by David Eagleman. He makes a strong case for “ourselves” being just the tip of the iceberg of what “we” really are; more to the point, our conscious selves are most of the time “the last guy to know” what is going on into our neural machineries. I can´t help but believe this is the endgame for anybody really commited to non-dualist approaches of the mind.

Besides, we are really good at creating stories. That´s what we are most of the time, “pattern recognition machines”, and the byproduct is that we tend to create patterns and coherent narratives even where they doesn´t exist _ for example, the very log of our mind´s perambulations per the state space of ideas.

That could explain why we can create very good narratives of our past intellectual life _ because there are so much to explain _ but can see just more of the same for the future, since there are not yet facts to create stories upon.


Ann Levey 01.06.13 at 4:03 pm

Like Quiggin in # 19, my basic character flaws (and virtues) seem to me to have changed remarkably little. I started taking classes at my university a few years ago and was appalled to discover that I am as inattentive a student in my 50s as I was in my 20s. On the other hand, experience has changed my opinions. I am studying Spanish, something I would have regarded as a complete waste of time in my 20s since I then thought that anything I wanted to read I could read in translation without loss.

I can relate to Tomslee brother in #13. I used to say that if you are not a socialist at 20 then you have no heart and if you are still a socialist at 30 then you still have your heart. I am still a socialist in my 50s and I like to think that I still have a heart. Though again, my opinions have changed–I am no longer opposed to small businesses but have come to see them as crucial to socialism.

So based on my experience, its one’s beliefs that change not fundamentals.


Hermenauta 01.06.13 at 4:03 pm

Just in the interest of adding data points to the pool of experiences you´re forming here, I´m not really a “continuity” guy. Probably I got at least two periods of personality change in my life, the bigger one at 17, and one later where I reconciled my 2 former selves. Or think so. :)


Anderson 01.06.13 at 5:34 pm

I don’t think a bunch of “well *I* certainly feel no different” anecdotes is exactly persuasive. Of course you don’t. Memory is an interpreter, not a recorder.

Hume was all over this.


Main Street Muse 01.06.13 at 6:07 pm

This post makes me think of Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

To Chris @5: What are the intellectual biographies you are referring to? I’d like to read some. I’m not clear on what you are trying to convey.

The discussion of a particular idea (say, for example, Marxism) tends not to focus on Marx’s life story. Discussions of Randian Objectivism tend to focus on “Atlas Shrugged,” rather than Ayn Rand’s rather remarkable journey in life. Anne Heller’s bio of Rand offered a fascinating glimpse “into the Russian-American’s overheated philosophical subbasement.” ( And her life was a bit of a chaotic mess. But a look at Rand’s life isn’t the same as an examination of Objectivism and its role in the American economy (particularly via Alan Greenspan’s actions as head of the fed.)

For me personally, my life has been a series of chapters, interrupted by significant life events: deaths, marriages, births, work, travel. I am most certainly not the same person I was in college. I like this idea I heard in an NPR story that the various parts of me are connected by the duct tape known as memory:


Anderson 01.06.13 at 6:11 pm

“For me personally, my life has been a series of chapters”

Note the metaphor, with its implied application of a literary device – narrative – to lived experience, which kinda begs the question here.


Neville Morley 01.06.13 at 6:50 pm

(1) I love all the people whose response to psychological studies to the effect that we over-estimate our own consistency is to say “Yes, but I’m pretty damn consistent.”

(2) I really, really wish I had the nerve to get Kaveh’s friend’s tatoo (leaving aside the fact that my wife would be less than happy).


Substance McGravitas 01.06.13 at 7:07 pm

There might be some consistency in my perception of what an asshole I was ten years ago.


Mao Cheng Ji 01.06.13 at 7:24 pm

Don’t know about me, but people around me don’t change much. For the first dozen years of your life you collect information, the next half-dozen years you process it, and then you are what you are. Pretty much.


Mo 01.06.13 at 8:25 pm

People underestimate how much the culture they live in will change, as well as how much their identity is shaped by that culture. I don’t remember the exact wording, but Dennis Potter was talking about how he was often asked why he used such “bad” music in the Pennies from Heaven TV series. His response went along the lines of – when someone says “this is our song” they aren’t saying that our love is tacky and kind of dated, what they are saying is that this is the song that was so popular when we fell in love, we heard it all the time.

My father has been a devout liberal Catholic since before Vatican II. But if you had asked him 20, or even 10, years ago about homosexuality, he would have been against it. Compassionately opposed, but seeing it as not something that should be approved of. He now supports gay marriage. Did he really change or the world around him?


Meredith 01.06.13 at 10:52 pm

What is a personality? What is its relation to tastes and opinions? Is personality the same as character? As self, or sense thereof? As consciousness? What are we really talking about here?

Maybe we should think of vectors, within different infinity sets, connected to other infinity sets on their own vector courses. Who can know what will come next? You plan and imagine according to what you know (and the more you know, at best, the more uncertainty you accept and the more possible change you can imagine). I have always liked the way ancient Greeks imagined the past as what’s in front of us, the future behind — you can only (even half) see clearly what’s in front of you, the past. Some people’s peripheral vision is better than others’, of course.


Tony Lynch 01.06.13 at 10:56 pm

Patrick #15.

“For me, there’s a lot of validity to the Buddhist notion that the integral, coherent self is an illusion.”

If you were an analytic philosopher, then your hero would be Derek Parfit – but to see why it really won’t run, look at:

‘Persons, Character and Morality.’ Bernard Williams, Moral Luck, 1981, pp. 1–19.


Hermenauta 01.07.13 at 12:23 am

Actually _ now I remember _ this is a long standing debate in psychology:


Dmitri 01.07.13 at 2:26 am


Andrew C 01.07.13 at 4:12 am

I realised about 2 years ago that I was still listening to music from my teens (70s) and not enjoying it at all. I downloaded a couple of thousand songs from one of those sites where musicians put up their songs freely (betterpropaganda in this case, plus others), put this massive playlist of music running through my headphones at work for months. Did not skip music I didn’t like either.

After 2 years, I love rap and hip-hop, French disco and black metal, obscure indie American and Canadian bands, dreamy jangle-pop, African popular music, electronic, ambient, industrial, Deftones, Debussy, Jelly-Roll Morton, art, art-rock, post-industrial…and when I listen to led Zeppelin or Queen I cry with boredom ( perversely I’m fond of disco which at the time I hated).

Long story short, you can indeed change your musical tastes, by simple constant exposure to difference. Presumably, a lot of our personal quirks (that we fondly call our “personalities”) are equally malleable.


clew 01.07.13 at 4:36 am

“I wish I were what I was when I wanted to be what I am now.”


Meredith 01.07.13 at 5:51 am

One thing I admire about tattoos is their courageous Dasein.


Jim Buck 01.07.13 at 8:05 am

Forget that tenner you say I borrowed off you. Whoever that was has moved away; it was not me.


Greg 01.07.13 at 8:11 am

The expectation of possible, if not probable regret is weirdly built in to the experience of getting a tattoo. When I got my single tattoo at age 19 it was at least partly in order to give future me a permanent reminder to get over myself.

Committing to a tattoo is a pretty existential moment. When the needle’s inked and the hairy bloke looks you in the eye and says “ready?”, you have to face up to the fact that the version of you that’s sitting there in the chair hoping that this is a good idea, will soon simply not exist. And you have to be OK with that.


Jim Buck 01.07.13 at 8:42 am

Frith Street Tattoo ( opposite Ronnie Scott’s) is the place to see how futile attempts to black out the past can be. Everyone who works out front is heavily decorated; and many also sport big patches of ink-black skin—-presumably censoring a souvenir of someone’s past incompetency; tattoos rashly enacted are heavily redacted.


Phil 01.07.13 at 12:45 pm

There’s a very fine line between “this is so *me*! it’s great!” and “oh God, that’s so *me*…” – not to mention “that was so me”, “was that really me?” and “honesty compels me to admit that was me”. Which is why I’ve never got a tattoo, and in fact why I’ve never got an iPod – a few years ago I had the perfect quote lined up for the free engraving, when I fell into a (mostly exogenous) depression and the first sentiment above flipped into the second. Maybe I’ll just get my name on it (although that really would be *me*…).


Nick 01.07.13 at 2:32 pm

Kind of getting off-topic, but I’m intrigued by the idea of the *me* tattoo.

Once upon a time they denoted the group (the tribe, the crew of a ship, the soldiers in a unit overseas, your mother or your children who passed).

Post-modernity strikes again?

(Tip to those thinking of getting a tattoo – spend your money on a good haircut instead!)


Nick 01.07.13 at 2:34 pm

FWIW though, the only tattoos I really like are of people. There’s something so uncannily lifelike about a human face drawn on a 3D canvas of actual living skin. But it’s also when you really, really don’t want a b-grade artist doing the work…


Harald Korneliussen 01.07.13 at 3:40 pm

Somebody might want to promote that Qumodoque article (that has been linked twice in comments now) to the body of this post – it’s really a more interesting read than the original article.


Katherine 01.07.13 at 4:48 pm

But it’s also when you really, really don’t want a b-grade artist doing the work…

You’ve not truly experienced the uncanny valley until you’ve seen a badly done human face tattoo. A particularly dadly drawn Mel Gibson As Mad Max will never fade from my memory. Shudder.


PatrickinIowa 01.07.13 at 6:23 pm

Tony, at #38. Not an analytic philosopher, at all. (One of the things that I mark as a major change since my college years FWIW.)

Still, thanks for the reason to read Parfit someday. And thanks for the reference. I intend to read it, but who knows?


hellblazer 01.08.13 at 4:13 am

Dmitri at 40, see JSE (ahem) at 18.

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