… who will seem like a stranger to you
I met Hal Hershfield under unusual circumstances.
A few years ago my wife and I went to San Diego for a P&I DC West conference at which I was scheduled to be the keynote speaker on the final day. We arrived early to give us an extra day to enjoy the city, and checked in with the conference organizers. They were pleased to see us, as they had just heard from the scheduled opening-day keynote speaker that he would be unable to come because of a family emergency. Would I be OK to switch to the opening day? They thought Hal, from UCLA, might be someone to approach to replace me on the final day. I suggested that Hal would be even better as the opener, but they preferred the certainty of my switching to that role, giving them a couple of days to get Hal (yes, they got Hal) and to give him a couple of days to prepare something to talk about.
As I expected, Hal was superb. I chatted with him afterwards, telling him how much I enjoyed his published research on the work he and Dan Goldstein had done on altering someone’s image to make them look older, and then showing them this image of their future self – resulting in a much greater willingness to save for retirement, for the benefit of this future self.
Well, Hal (Dr Hal Hershfield, Professor of Marketing, Behavioral Decision Making, and Psychology at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, to give him his accurate credentials) has now gone much further. He has gathered together a huge amount of research and explained it all via an easy read (with dozens of helpful anecdotes) in his book called Your Future Self: how to make tomorrow better today. I’ve now read it twice. The second time I made notes. Here’s my take on it.
Why should you know your future self? Because the actions you take today will affect your future health, finances and happiness. And so, your present self has some (probably a lot of) influence over your future self, without your ever realizing it consciously. You can create a better future for yourself.
OK, then, I have many questions. To start with: What characterizes us today? Are we the same person over time? What stays the same over time and what changes? And, surprisingly (Hal put this in my head, I didn’t ask it myself): do we actually care about our future self?
We can each be several people today: our morning self, our night-time self, our job self, and so on. But we have five core personality traits: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion and neuroticism; and we possess these to degrees that vary from one person to another. If you measure these traits in a given person, over ten years or so it turns out that typically there’ll be significant change in one of them and little change in the other four. So we change over time, but in a stable sort of way.
(Sidebar: How do we see others? Hal says that if people retain their moral traits over time, we’re likely to see their present and future selves as similar.)
Can we see our future selves, in our minds? Essentially, shortening a long answer: no. In the brain, the future self looks more like another person than like the current self. Hence that experiment of Hal’s, to see if it’s possible to persuade the current self to make a sacrifice in order to benefit the future self. That imaging process helps bridge the gap. (Grayer hair, wrinklier skin, and age spots: those who saw their future selves put aside a significantly higher portion of their income toward retirement – about 6 percent of their paychecks – than the people who simply saw their present selves, who set aside about 2 percent).
Part of the reason our distant selves are not seen as “us” might be caused by the fact that we can’t see them all that clearly. We pay a great deal of attention to the present. The here and now tends to consume our mental bandwidth, blocking out thoughts of the future. The present seems to be viewed under an emotional magnifying glass.
(Sidebar: As people grow older and they experience more stability in their lives, they report feeling higher levels of connection with their future selves. My observation: this is consistent with the shorter time horizons Prof. Laura Carstensen reports on, as we age.)
We also don’t have much of an imagination about the future. Whether they were younger, middle-aged, or older, a study of nearly twenty thousand people demonstrated a clear pattern. People believed that they had changed a great deal from the past—in terms of their personalities and their values—but failed to see that they would change as much in the future. The social psychologist Dan Gilbert calls it the “end-of-history illusion.” The gist is that although we recognize that we’ve evolved from who we once were to who we are now, we fail to see that we will continue to change in the future. case. “In many ways,” Dan told Hal (speaking about himself), “sixty-four is more different from fifty-four than fifty-four was from forty- four.” It can be hard to see that even though we’ve experienced great change in the past, we will continue to experience great change in the future.
Well, if future versions of ourselves are like strangers, it’s important, because we treat strangers differently. The more similarity you feel that you share with a stranger, the more you like them and feel bonded to them. So, changing your sense of connection to your future self can boost your willingness to take more actions on their behalf.
You won’t be surprised to learn that achieving this connection isn’t simple.
Can we close the time travel gap between our present self and our future self?
Hal thinks of this time travel as being like a journey we decide to take. And he points out three types of errors that we tend to make. He gives them names that we’ll recognize from how we actually take trips.
The first kind of error is to “miss our flight.” We’re too focused on the present and fail to consider the future at all.
In fact, it’s natural for us to make the present our anchor, distorting our decisions about the future. We discount future rewards substantially, so they tend to look smaller than present costs. The present is a magnifying glass. Why? Partly because the present is more certain than the necessarily uncertain future. Partly because our dopamine system triggers an emotional reaction to whatever is right in front of us. And partly because time feels as if it lasts longer in the present: we tend to compress the future.
What if we manage to conquer this, and don’t miss our flight? The next danger, in Hal’s analogy, is that we engage in “poor trip planning”: we think about the future to some degree, but just not deeply enough. Because we live in the present, we tend to think that the feelings we have in the future will be less intense than the ones we have now. Procrastination is a classic example of this mistake: in not considering the future in a particularly deep way, we fail to recognize just how much our future selves will want to avoid the same negative situations we’re escaping today. Or we may too easily say yes to a future commitment, but not anticipate just how much our future selves will regret it.
Now suppose we’re on the flight. Hal’s third flight analogy is that we might “pack the wrong clothes.” In that case, we are actively focusing on the future but rely too heavily on the present to do so, which often results in feelings of regret over our choices. How so? We use the emotional states of our current selves to make decisions for future selves who will no longer feel the same way. And when we are anchored on less emotional states, we fail to appreciate the strong emotions that our future selves might legitimately experience.
Why is it important to close that gap?
It’s because, if we can treat those distant selves as if they are close others—people we care about, love, and want to support—then we can start making choices for them that appreciably improve our lives now and later.
Let’s look, in the next blog post, at how Hal suggests we do that.
It’s well worthwhile to get to know your future self, because you can make that future self healthier and happier. But closing the time travel gap is difficult.
I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.