Why do we have trouble seeing the future?

by Juliana Adelman

Brian Cowen is neither the first nor the last politician to have to admit that he was wrong.  Despite the many many voices of economists telling him that no bubble had ever resulted in a soft landing, he and his supporters continued to insist that Ireland would not experience a crash.  Why do we have such difficulty in accepting that past scenarios might be applicable to the present or even the future?  Why do we have so much difficulty in seeing the long term? It’s not just the politicians.  Despite the oft repeated George Santayana quote regarding the repetition of history, we seem as a species to be quite incapable of REALLY accepting that life repeats itself.  Yes, it is never exactly the same.  But nonetheless, human behavior shows remarkable consistency through historical time.  People react in similar ways to similar situations.  Unstable banks?  People rush to remove their money from them.  Uncertain future?  People put off spending.  And, it pains me to say, State budget crisis? Direct cuts and taxes at the lower paid.  But that’s a debate for another blog.

I recently came across a really interesting book review of The Thief of Time edited by Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White in the New Yorker. The book is a collection of essays about procrastination.  Now procrastination maybe doesn’t seem completely relevant to financial meltdown.  But the writer of the review was in fact the magazine’s financial columnist, James Suroweicki and it seems to me that some of the ideas about why we procrastinate are related to other aspects of human behavior about future planning.

The inherent interest in procrastination is that it is irrational: the procrastinator knows it is a bad idea and still he/she (I!) does it.  Why oh why do we do it?  Suroweicki offers an evolutionary explanation which is that our mind is adapted to deal with the present, not with the future and so whatever is in front of us is the most engaging. This might explain why systems of government throughout the world are pretty much limited to the very short term (eg 3 or 4 year democratic cycles) or the very long term (eg lifelong dictatorships).  And why it takes a financial crisis of this magnitude to produce a 4 year financial plan instead of an annual budget concocted at the last minute and debated for the least possible amount of time.  In fact, the slow pace of change regarding the environment indicates just how impossible we find it to plan for the future.  No matter how strongly scientists tell us that life as we know it will end without dramatic changes, we cannot hold that thought as we make yet another unnecessary car journey.  I realise I’ve lost the thread between past and future a bit by now, but I do think it is the same present-orientation to our brains that prevents us from seeing ourselves as anything other than unique individuals experiencing something that has never happened before.  On the other hand, I wonder if this is really genetic as opposed to cultural.  After all, there are lots of religions which posit cyclical rather than linear history.  Perhaps we should seek out Buddhist candidates for the January election.

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