Memory helps us to shape our sense of ourselves, and it’s a creative act, not an objective accounting.
Psychologists have established what they call “hindsight bias,” a mental quirk that encourages us to believe that today’s outcomes were once obvious and inevitable and that tomorrow’s changes are unlikely. We assume more constancy and less variance than we ought: our memories are both constructing and conservative.
In a very short talk, “The Psychology of Your Future Self,” Harvard professor Dan Gilbert explains this phenomenon. “We overpay for the opportunity to indulge our current preferences because we overestimate their stability,” he says. We retrospectively perceive the past as a road much straighter and smoother than any road we’re currently on, and we project onto our future selves all the consistency and coherence we imagine we already have.
As David McRaney might say, we’re not so smart.
When you desire meaning, when you want things to line up, you forget about stochasticity. You are lulled by the signal. You forget about noise… If you have a human brain, you do this all the time.” —David McRaney
So this is how the human storytelling brain works: we smooth out the wrinkles in our experiences for a tidier trip down memory lane, and we extrapolate from the present as much as we can (and more than’s appropriate).
If we can’t fix this bias, the least we can do is try to be more aware of it whenever we review where we are in life, what we’ve been able to create so far, and what might be possible tomorrow.
SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable or assignable, realistic, and time-bound) are one way to moderate the effect of this quirk when it comes to our future, but perhaps only a tall glass of self-compassion with a twist of skepticism can moderate it when it comes to our past.
Ask: What could just as easily be true? What other explanations fit the facts? Is there another story we could tell?