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Why your brain is so bad at planning for the future


I'm in my 30s, and I didn't start saving for retirement quite as early as I should have. Even more than a year into my job at, I still haven't taken the first step to setting up a 401(k) here.

And I'm not alone on this. Many people are bad at planning for the future. At saving enough for retirement. At setting up a 401(k). At exercising and eating right. We know we should. We just keep putting it off. Why is that?

Lately, scientists have come up with an intriguing hypothesis for why some people keep failing at long-term planning — they view their future selves as strangers. In fact, the more you view your future self as a distinct entity from your current self, the more likely you are to put off tasks (like saving for retirement) that will benefit you in the long term.

The good news? These researchers have also found tricks that help make us feel closer to our future selves — and could make us better at planning ahead.

We treat our future selves like strangers

Woman lifespan aging


Most people don't feel a perfect continuity with the self they imagine in the future. They put things off — retirement savings, exercise — because they somehow think that this "other" me later on will take care of everything.

"Whenever we put things off, we kind of make that future self our beast of burden," says Fuschia Sirois, a psychologist currently at the University of Sheffield. "The me of tomorrow will have more energy, or the me of next week will have lots of time." But that future self actually ends up, in most cases, being just as tired and busy (and desirous of chocolate chip cookies) as today's self.

In other words, we continue to behave as if we'll miraculously get something done later on even if we've failed to do it over and over again in the past.

That disconnect between how people treat their present selves and future selves was demonstrated in an odd experiment by Princeton psychologist Emily Pronin, in which students thought they were participating in a study about disgust. Students were asked to drink a gross liquid for the good of science. Those who were signed up to drink that day volunteered to consume two tablespoons, on average. But those who were signed up to drink next semester volunteered to down half a cup. They were happy to let their future self take it.

People who feel closer to their future selves have more savings

What's more, researchers have been discovering that there's a link between how we think of our future selves and how we make important choices about our lives. Hal Hershfield, a marketing professor at UCLA, has found that how close people feel to their future selves is related to how much money they've already saved up and how much they're willing to save for the future.

Future self scale

(Hal Ersner-Hershfield et al. Judgm Decis Mak. Jun 1, 2009; 4(4): 280–286.)

Hershfield is part of the team that came up with a simple visual scale to measure the connection people feel with their future selves: two circles that participants are told represent their current self and future self, arranged from less overlapping to more overlapping. They've found that people who choose circles that overlap more actually have more assets saved up in real life.

Hershfield has also confirmed this with brain imaging. When people are in an fMRI scanner, their rostral anterior cingulate cortex brain region — which usually shows a high level of activity when people think about themselves — quiets down when people are told to think about themselves in 10 years. In fact, our brain activity when thinking about our future selves looks surprisingly similar to what happens when participants are asked to think about other people altogether.

But there are also variations among different people. People who seemed to have a greater connection to their future self were more likely, in a lab experiment, to choose to wait for a greater financial reward.

The consequences of our relationship to our future self goes well beyond finance. Sirois has also found, in work that has yet to be published, that people who are more prone to procrastination are less connected to their future selves. (Her previous research has found that procrastinators are less likely to be oriented toward the future). And some of this disconnect can be attributed to these people being less compassionate to themselves.

"Being hard on yourself when you do procrastinate will actually promote procrastinating more," she says. In other words, being more forgiving toward yourself now might help you be nicer to yourself in the future, too.

Connecting to your future self leads to better decisions

Young man looking in mirror at older self


Researchers have also been working on ways to harness these discoveries in order to help people make better decisions.

One such tool is a timeline. Psychologist Anne Wilson has shown that students presented with a timeline that included the due date of a future paper ended up turning the paper in earlier. (For more on this, see Alisa Opar's piece at Nautilus.)

Hershfield has also found that showing people a digitally aged picture of themselves can make them more likely to say they'll save — and save more — for retirement. In one experiment, seeing that old, wrinkled self increased how much people said they'd save for their 401(k)s, increasing it from 5.2 percent to 6.75 percent. That's something that could really add up over time — provided that people actually follow through.

Section 4, in which I look at my future, wrinkled self

Old Susannah

This is my digitally aged self via the app AgingBooth.

The studies with digitally aged pictures were so influential that some financial institutions have been trying to use the technique to draw in customers for savings plans. Merrill Edge, for example, currently has an online photo booth that shows you what you'll look like at a retirement age of 67.

I tried it out. It took a still webcam shot, asked for my age and sex, and produced a creepy version with forehead wrinkles, crows feet, and sagging skin. It stared at me and blinked. I think it may have been too odd to elicit any meaningful attachment. I felt more disgusted than connected because of the not-entirely-human feel of what was looking at me. But who knows what was happening on an unconscious level.

There are also several free smartphone apps, such as AgingBooth, that will take your picture and age it even further — and they sometimes create images that feel much more realistic. I put myself through the AgingBooth and ended up with something that eerily hit home. Oh, what gravity has done. I was staring into my future, and it looked a lot like my mom. Plus a few decades.

Do I feel like looking into that 401(k) stuff? Eh. But I might tape the picture to my bathroom mirror to see if I save more — or at least wear more sunscreen.

Further reading

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