Many people say that they want to lose weight, but actually doing it is an agonizing process, as you forego tasty treats for bland but healthier substitutes. And for weight loss to be really effective, you have to boost exercise as well, meaning dutiful workout routines and aching muscles. No wonder so few manage to keep their fitness resolutions; there’s just too much present punishment for potential rewards that only come much later.
When people say they want to lose weight, what they really mean is that they wish they weighed less than they do right now. They imagine a svelte and sexy future self completely different from the spare-tire-attired present self. But it may very well be that this imagined future self is what’s sabotaging people's weight-loss plans.
According to University of Chicago psychologist Oleg Urminsky, a sense of connectedness to one's future self is essential for achieving long-term goals. In other words, you’re more likely to delay gratification when you see the self that’s receiving the benefit as essentially the same person you are now. Seeing yourself in the future as a slim and trim “new you” creates a disconnect with the self you are now, who’s currently suffering through a dreadful diet and withering workout routine.
Connectedness to the future self is especially important when it comes to highly long-term goals. For example, everyone knows you need to save for retirement. But most people have difficulty putting enough into that nest egg each month. It’s true that people tend to earn less earlier in their career than later. And the expense of raising a family hits younger couples more than those in middle age. Nevertheless, small contributions early in your career can lead to a substantial retirement fund through the power of compound interest.
Although people understand this at a rational level, it doesn’t strike home at the emotional level, where decisions are often made. And one reason for this, according to Urminsky, is the lack of connection young adults have with their future selves many decades away. Retirement is for old folks, not young, energetic, ambitious people like me, this thinking goes, so what’s the sense in saving up for silver years we cannot imagine experiencing?
Urminsky considers his idea of connectedness to the future within the larger context of a well-documented phenomenon in behavioral economics known as time discounting. This occurs when people discount the value of a resource if there will be a delay in receiving it. For instance, if I offer you $120 now or $180 a year from now, you’ll most likely take the smaller-but-sooner option over the larger-but-later one.
As Urminsky points out, there are many psychological and economic factors that influence time discounting. On the one hand, our emotions will always drive us toward short-term benefits. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense, because you never know if you’ll even be alive in the long term. On the other hand, there’s the issue of trust: Receiving $120 right now is a sure thing, but how do you know I’ll keep my word and pay out $180 a year from now?
Interestingly, time discounting only occurs when the choice is between a smaller-sooner reward now and a larger-later reward in the future. When both options are in the future, people are willing to wait. So, people want the $120 now rather than $180 in six months. But if the offer is $120 in six months or $180 in 12 months, people will opt for the larger, later payout.
Time discounting reduces the perceived value of a future reward, but it doesn’t devalue it completely. You may take $120 now over $180 in six months, but if I raise the future award high enough, say, $200 or $240, you’ll most likely decide that the wait is worthwhile.
Urminsky used this approach to test the idea that time discounting can be influenced by connectedness to future self. In a study involving graduating college seniors, half the participants read a story about how different their lives would be after graduation. This was the “low-connectedness” condition. The other half read a story about how their core identities would stay the same after graduation. This was the “high-connectedness” condition.
Both groups were then offered a choice between $120 to be received in one week and increasing amounts up to $240 to be received in a year. Those in the “high-connected” condition were generally willing to wait a year for a smaller additional amount than were those in the “low-connected” condition. In other words, when people see themselves as connected to their future selves, they’re more willing to delay gratification.
So, can you leverage connectedness to your future self to achieve long-term goals? Preliminary studies suggest that this could be an effective strategy. Imagining your future lean physique may create a gap between the present and future you that is too great to span. But you can more easily imagine your present self as being a few pounds lighter or fitting into clothes a size smaller. And keeping this image in mind can help you achieve that short-term goal. From there, you can take the next step forward on your path to a healthier future, and so on. Likewise, connecting to your future self may help you save for retirement. No one likes to think about growing old. But if instead you can imagine a future when you have the time and the money to do the things you’d like to do now but can’t afford, you may have more incentive to save for the golden years.
Who do you see when you look into the future: Some old geezer putting around the course, or you as you are now but having mastered your golf swing? What you see when you look into the future can influence how you behave in the present.
Urminsky, O. (2017). The role of psychological connectedness to the future self in decisions over time. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26, 34-39.