Consider a thought experiment. Imagine you set your alarm clock at midnight to wake up at 6:00 AM the next morning to exercise. But when the alarm goes off the next morning, the choice that you made last night now seems absurd. The warmth and comfort of the bed makes you change your mind. What was chosen the night before is now rejected. On the day before, your preference was to get up at 6:00 AM, while when the time comes to get out of bed your preference is to stay in bed longer. This problem must have happened pervasively in most students’ life. There is a gap between what they prefer to do and what they actually do. Why do preferences sometimes change through the sheer passage of time?

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Source: By Charlesjsharp (Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

1. The immediacy of now. The main problem with most bad habits (e.g., overeating, and procrastinations) is that the costs occur in the future, whereas the pleasures from them occur in the present. A desire to indulge in immediate pleasures may lead us to overeat or to postpone unpleasant tasks (e.g., preparing for an exam). For example, when we consume very rich dessert, we don’t get an immediate feedback of adverse health effects. The health consequences (shorter life) will come over a long time horizon that we are unable to realize it now.

2. Present bias. We often want instant gratification right now, and want to be patient in the future, such as eating highly caloric foods, while planning diet starting tomorrow. The addicts and overeaters want to discontinue their behaviors at some point, but not today. However, when tomorrow comes, the required action will be delayed yet again. A present-biased person will place too much weight on present costs and benefits and too little on the future ones. And so he will skip the gym workout today in hopes that he will make a difficult choice tomorrow.

3. Projection bias. People falsely project their current feelings (preferences) onto their future feelings. And they fail to see that there is no solid connection between these feelings. For example, people denounce junk food when they are not craving (or hungry) without realizing how much they want those delicious cookies once they are hungry. Because when you plan your dieting behavior, you are often in a calm, cool state, so you make unrealistic commitments. This idea supports the age-old folk wisdom that shopping on an empty stomach leads people to buy too much. They project their current state of hunger onto their predicted future hunger.

4. Limited attention and memory. When we make plans for the future, such as a weight-loss plan, a critical requirement for success is that we remember the plan when the moment of truth arrives. For example, if our current goal is shopping for health food, when entering the grocery store, we protect our goal by preventing goal-irrelevant stimuli (high-caloric foods) to gain access to our short-term memory. The ability to delete quickly tempting thoughts from the memory may increase the chances to follow through on our goals (buying health foods).

5. Negative Affect. Negative affect is among the most important triggers of self-control failure. For instance, depressed people desire specific things that bring immediate gratification, and procrastinate or avoid any activity that involve effort. Emotional distress causes a behavioral shift toward immediate improvements in mood, and so people make poor decisions.

What is the take-home message? The most basic consequence of preference reversal is that we are strangers to ourselves. When people see themselves as totally distinct from their future selves, then the future selves’ well-being is none of their concern. Thus, future selves are considered to be strangers, to whom one can pass the buck and impose a sometimes heavy and uncompensated burden.

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