The Psychological End of History

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


February 28, 2013

The Psychological End of History

When asked to reflect on their past, people of all ages believe they have changed significantly over their lives, and yet systematically underestimate the likelihood that they will change in the future. This effect has been studied by Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, coining it the end-of-history illusion. “People,” he says, “regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.”

It appears to be yet another confirmation of Buddhist principles from the domain of psychology—in this case, the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering and non-self. Buddhism teaches that clinging or attachment leads to suffering. We are attached to things, people and situations, hoping that they will stay as they are, but all things are impermanent, and subject to change and death. This is because all phenomena are conditioned by impermanence (in Sanskrit: anatman), so they lack any permanent, unchanging essence, or a fixed “self”.

This connection was noted by Soto Zen priest Dosho Port, who suggests that the end of history illusion is precisely the fixed idea of self—the atman that is negated in anatman—that Buddha rejected.

The end of history illusion has a second connection, obvious from its name: Francis Fukuyama’s notorious and premature announcement that with the end of the Cold War and the failure of Soviet communism, humanity had chosen the final form of political organization in Western liberal democracy and capitalism. In a blog post about Gilbert’s research, Jerome Roos attempts to link the psychological and political ideas. After extoling the ideals of Occupy Wall Street (“direct democracy, mutual aid, leaderless self-organization, and voluntary association”), Roos wonders why society hasn’t adopted them:

Rather than facing the inevitability of future change, conservatives cling onto the past while liberals forever praise the immortal wonders of the present… Why are we so incapable of imagining the type of changes — both individual and social — that still lie ahead?… [T]he predictability of the future seems to provide us with a sense of security. While past changes have helped us made us who we are today, future changes are by their very definition unknowable, and therefore threaten our painstakingly constructed notion of Self. For most people, there is something profoundly troubling about the idea that we may not be able to recognize our own values and preferences a decade from now. A similar fear appears to bedevil prospects of social change.

Roos takes for granted that the psychological and political versions of the end of history are the same, implying that by accepting a more fluid definition of the self we will be more accepting of social change. Putting a Buddhist spin on the same idea, we might say that the classic meditation on the impermanence of the self lessens both aversion to change and attachment to the way your ego is presently constituted. Dosho Roshi effectively makes this point, notably departing from the more common Buddhist (or perhaps simply New Age) injunction to stay in the present, accepting things as they are, and to give up aversion to suffering and attachment to the desire for things to be different.

Most often, non-attachment is applied as accepting things as they are, but here it means not resisting change. Although maybe this is a less conservative idea, there remains a problem: the two versions of the end of history may not be the same at all. Gilbert’s research does not suggest that people are unable to change because of the psychological illusion—indeed, the whole point is that people change despite believing that they won’t. The scenario he has in mind is getting a tattoo when you are twenty only to regret it decades later when you’ve changed your mind. In contrast, the political idea of the end of history really does prevent political change because political change doesn’t happen without the belief that it should and it must.

Can we take it a step further? What if the two versions are not only different, but on some level actually opposed to each other? Fukuyama’s idea of the end of history goes hand in hand with the end of political ideologies, which are regarded as illusions in much the same way that contemporary neuropsychology and Buddhist doctrine views the fixed self.

Jerome Roos’ arguments for the fluid sense of self are compelling insofar as we accept a very specific theory of the relationship between the self and policial change. Under this view, change occurs because we as individuals are able to accept change, when our identities are flexible, free-floating and unmoored to any specific societal organization. The first problem here is that simply being amenable to change doesn’t mean we will change in the specific direction of a more just, less oppressive and exploitative society. We might float gently down the river towards fascism, or feudalism or theocracy.

There are a few other connections that can be made. In a previous post, I wrote about the American dream of self-reinvention and the way that social media is often represented and idealized as helping us to realize it. The neophilic logic of consumer capitalism often demands fluidity and self-reinvention, operating in an endless cycle of novelty and obsolescence which forces us to relinquish whatever existing attachments we’ve formed in favor of embracing the new. Finally, the most recent models of labor downplay the value of secure, stable jobs while praising the new flexible, entrepreneurial worker who floats between temporary positions. It is hard to maintain the thesis that we live in an age that prizes the fixed self.

A politics that aims at radical change seems to me to benefit more from a fixed self than a fluid one. Change is not, as Roos argues, by any means inevitable, it is not brought about by simply being open to change. It is more likely to be brought about by fixing oneself to a political vision, being bound to its principles and ideals, and advancing its cause—in other words, in having a fixed self.

Or as G.K. Chesterton put it, “Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

It may well be true that we are not naturally in possession of a fixed self, as both Buddhism and neuropsychology confirm. It may equally be true that the best route to a happier, more tranquil life is through contemplating the impermanence of all things, including the self. Still, we may yet find other benefits in deviating from this sound advice.