The Problem of Egocentrism in Societal Advancement (and Some Potential Solutions)

September 13th, 2016

We should anticipate significant changes in our economy and society in the next 10-15 years concomitant with the increasing rate of technological innovation. However, many people underestimate just how different our future could be. If we want to do a good job preparing for societal transformation, which will likely require hard collective choices about the framework of how we live and work with each other, we’ll have to figure out how to get people to understand what the future might hold.


Several biases lead people to struggle to imagine a future radically different from the present. This is a significant threat to preparing for future societal change. However, one of the most interesting and potentially solvable biases is the forecasting error induced by egocentrism. When we consider the future, we imagine our own experiences today with some incremental augmentation (e.g., “I’ll be a senior software engineer with, like, a really fast laptop that charges wirelessly.  And we’ll definitely have better cancer drugs.”). By projecting our current egocentric reference points into the future, we end up telling ourselves a story that looks much like the present, despite the fact that the future rarely looks like the present (e.g., social platforms don’t look anything like search, immunotherapy doesn’t look like chemotherapy).


What’s interesting about this reference point problem is that we might be able to correct for it by reminding people of the concurrent societal differences that exist today.


For example:

  • In Norway, each individual’s income and taxes are published online for anyone to see.
  • Over 90% of households have peanut butter in the USA, and two of our presidents used to be peanut farmers. While peanut butter is ubiquitous in American culture, it is rarely consumed in most other countries. Similarly, Americans consume over 30 pounds of cheese per year, but it’s almost impossible to find in China.
  • Japan has one of the highest adoption rates in the world, but over 90% of adoptees are adult males in their 20s and 30s. One cause is that old Japanese civil codes required that wealth be passed through male inheritance, and while the laws have changed, the habit remains. As a result, it is not uncommon for executives to adopt their adult successor to maintain family lines.
  • Divorce to marriage ratios vary by over 650% (9% in Jamaica, 71% in Belgium).
  • The average life expectancy at birth varies by over 70% (49 in Swaziland, 84 in Japan).


It’s an exercise in empathy: consider how different your life might be if you expected to live to 50 instead of 75. In less than 24 hours, you can fly to a country where the basic building blocks of your life your goals, values, ambitions, how you spend your time, if/when you have children would all be radically different. Reminding ourselves of the current heterogeneity of the most basic life experiences might help us recognize the magnitude of change that could occur in the future.