There is one person whose wants and needs you routinely ignore, opting instead to tend to your own immediate desires, and that person is future you. When it comes to making decisions that will have some effect on your long-term health or happiness — for example, whether or not to go to the gym today, in keeping with your New Year’s resolution — current you is always finding a new way to steal from future you. It’s time the two yous got better acquainted.
This concept in itself may not come as a great surprise, but the reason why this happens is the subject of some new and pretty fascinating research in social psychology, which suggests that most people think of their future selves as an entirely separate person from their present selves. We perceive our future selves — and “future” here can mean decades or weeks from now — to essentially be strangers, and, as the recently published book The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control notes, this affects our behavior and decision-making. It’s one of the reasons some of us struggle to save money or eat healthily or do anything else that is kind of a pain in the here and now, says Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at UCLA who has done a number of studies in this area. (Hershfield likes to point out that The Simpsons neatly illustrates his work, in a scene that has Homer saying, “That’s a problem for future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy,” and proceeding to pour vodka into a jar of mayonnaise and knock it back like a shot.)
Hershfield and a team at Stanford University published a neuroimaging study that helps illustrate the way the brain makes this distinction between current and future you. While the study volunteers were inside an fMRI machine, the researchers asked them to first think about themselves, then to think about another person — either Matt Damon or Natalie Portman (who, presumably, the subjects had never met). Finally, they were asked, “Please think about yourself ten years from now.” In most of the participants, the brain activity that was measured when they were imagining their future selves resulted in a similar pattern to the activity measured when they were thinking of the celebrities.
In a way, this makes intuitive sense, notes Emily Pronin, a Princeton University psychologist who has also published work in this area. One of the defining differences between you and someone else is the way you experience your own thoughts and emotions versus someone else’s. “We experience our own [thoughts and emotions] internally. We can look inward,” Pronin said. “Whereas, for other people, we only know what their thoughts or emotions might be through their actions. So the future self — and in that same way, the past self — are more like another person than they are like the self, because we can’t experience the feelings of a past and future self like we can with the present self.”
And this has long-term implications for the choices that we make, Pronin said, because the decisions we make for our future selves end up looking a lot like the ones we would make for another person. And that’s not always a good thing. She tells me about an experiment she led, in which she told the participants that she was studying people’s reactions to a disgusting drink. “It was something like soy sauce and ketchup mixed up together,” she said. “And we told them, the more disgust you experience, the better we can judge your reactions.” She and her research team let their subjects decide how much of the gross concoction would be consumed; some people were told to choose for themselves, while others were told they were choosing for another person. And a third group was told they were choosing for themselves — but in two weeks, when they’d return to the lab and would then have to stomach the soy sauce–ketchup combo. The people who were made to decide how much of the gross drink they’d have to consume in that very moment tended to choose the smallest amount, which was about a teaspoon, Pronin said. “But what we found was that people chose a larger amount — a quarter cup — for their future self or for another person,” she said. “So they chose the same amount for a future self or another person. And the idea is that in the present, you’re very aware of your feelings, but in the future, it’s more abstract.” (Economists and behavioral economists call this effect future or temporal discounting — basically, the tendency to place higher value on immediate rewards than future ones.)
If our lack of concern for our future selves is caused by a sense of disconnection from them, then it stands to reason that feeling closer to future you will lead you to treat him or her better. Hershfield tested this by asking a group of participants to choose which of a series of Venn diagrams most accurately represented the way they felt about these two versions of themselves. In some of the diagrams, the present and future selves overlapped a lot, while in others they were almost entirely separate.
Sure enough, the people who circled the diagrams with more overlap between their current and future selves tended to have saved more money than those who viewed these two selves more separately. “Basically, we found this relationship where the more similar people felt to their future selves, the more assets they had, even when you controlled for things like education, income and age,” said Hershfield.
His work has identified at least one way to help people better cozy up to their future selves. In a clever study, Hershfield showed some college students images of their own faces that been digitally altered to appear 50 years older, and showed others current, unaltered images. While looking at the image, the participants were asked to indicate how much of their salary they wanted to allocate to their 401(K), and those who’d seen a glimpse of their digitally aged selves said that they would save about 30 percent more, on average, than the students shown pictures of their current selves.
“So the lesson from that is, anything that we can do that will increase how concrete and salient our future self is – that’s the type of thing that can help us make better decisions,” Hershfield said. Anyone with a smart phone can try this for themselves; over the weekend, I terrified myself by playing around with an app called AgingBooth, which adds wrinkles and jowls and gray hair to the image of yourself you’ve uploaded, to supposedly give you a view of what you’ll look like in 2045.
But, perhaps surprisingly, Hershfield doesn’t necessarily recommend trying to force your brain into reckoning with the apparently jarring idea that current you and future you are, in fact, the same person, if that’s not your natural inclination. Instead, he suggests trying to work with your mind’s misconception. If your brain insists on believing your future self is a different person, well, then, go with that — just try to act as if this is another person you care about and want to treat well.