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Why Planning for the Future Is So Hard

Subjective perceptions of time can influence long-term choices.

Key points

  • Human decision-makers have an inherent preference for short-term rewards over delayed rewards.
  • This tendency for “temporal discounting” makes it difficult to commit to future goals such as saving money.
  • People who perceive less psychological distance between their present and their future selves make more forward-thinking choices.

For a while now, my husband and I have been umming and aahing over the decision to get solar panels for our home. There’s no doubt that replacing fossil fuels with renewable solar power is an environmentally desirable option. And who doesn’t like that warm glow of doing something “good”? However, from a purely selfish point of view, things look a little different.

In the United Kingdom, switching to solar power is not cheap. The costs for solar panels, storage batteries, and installation fees rival those of a decent new car or a mid-sized wedding. In the long run, however, the costly investment is likely to pay off. Being able to produce your own energy leaves you independent from the global gas market and Putin’s geopolitical power play. With UK energy prices at an all-time high, this is certainly a tempting prospect.

Unfortunately, however, the financial benefits of solar panels are unlikely to come into action until years or even decades following their purchase. And while your future self would likely thank you for cashing out at present, it is all too tempting to spend that money on more tangible rewards. After all, you could just treat yourself to something that serves you in the here and now. How about a luxury getaway or a fancy new car?

Temporal Discounting

Imagine your employer offered you a one-off bonus payment for your excellent performance at work. Would you prefer to receive the payment now or a slightly larger payment in a year’s time? Most people wouldn’t think twice and claim their (smaller) bonus straight away.

This human preference for immediate rewards or “instant gratification” is a well-known psychological phenomenon evidenced across many studies including the (in)famous Marshmallow experiment. Closely related is the concept of “temporal discounting,” which describes people’s tendency to value rewards less the farther they lie in the future.

How do you think about time?
Source: KoolShooters/Pexels

Subjective Perceptions of Time

Research suggests that the extent of temporal discounting may be predicted by the way that individuals think about time. Human decision-makers rarely have objective, linear perceptions of time. For example, a two-year timeframe doesn’t always feel twice as long compared to a one-year timeframe.

Furthermore, people differ in the amount of psychological distance they perceive between the present day and certain future events. Some people feel a sense of continuity between their present and future selves. This typically means that they are closely connected to future outcomes and perceive them to be within close reach. Others, on the other hand, may perceive a large divide between their current and future selves, leading to a disconnectedness with the experience that lies ahead. As a result, even next month’s deadlines may appear to be years away.

Interestingly, perceptions of time can be influenced by a person’s age, with younger people often reporting that time appears to pass more slowly. Additionally, culture and native language may play a role, with research suggesting that native Mandarin speakers living in China conceptualise time differently compared to English speakers from the United States.

The Influence of Abstract Thinking

People’s perceptions of time are highly subjective, but how does this relate to preferences for rewards? A helpful explanation is offered by Trope and Liberman’s “construal-level theory,” which proposes that people form different mental representations of events or objects depending on the amount of psychological distance associated with them. Events or objects perceived to lie in the far-away future tend to be represented with abstract, high-level construals. In contrast, events or objects perceived to be just around the corner tend to be represented with detailed, low-level construals. Put more simply, when thinking about the future, human decision-makers focus on the bigger picture rather than on concrete details.

Abstraction is a natural process that helps to convey general meaning or importance about distant events while avoiding cluttering the mind with unnecessary detail. On the flip side, this makes future outcomes appear less tangible, therefore leading to the phenomenon of temporal discounting.

Let’s relate this back to my initial conundrum about investing in solar panels. My choice process is influenced by two abstract future goals; the wish to take better care of our planet and the desire to reduce rampant energy costs. Both goals appear psychologically distant at the time of making the choice. Consequently, they are examples of high-level construals that carry abstract information about my general preference for a sustainable and affordable future. As such, they lack detailed representation about how my goals could be achieved.

For example, there are different approaches to lowering energy costs. Generating your own energy using solar panels is one option. Another (rather unpleasant) option would be to simply turn off the heating. Without a clear understanding of what achieving a future goal would look or feel like, it is no wonder that the alternatives look so tempting. After all, spending money on immediate rewards has a much more tangible impact on happiness.

Using Theory to Your Advantage

Mental representations of the past and future can affect our choices. People vary in their perceptions of time and if they perceive a future outcome to be far away, they typically create more abstract mental images or ideas of these outcomes. This lack of detail means the outcome appears less concrete, real, and—ultimately—less rewarding.

While these theoretical underpinnings paint a somewhat discouraging picture for anybody who’s ever had the ambition to work toward a long-term goal, they also hold exciting opportunities. There is a simple strategy to manipulate your own perception of time and trick yourself into perceiving a stronger connection to the future. All you need to do is to engage in detailed visualisations of potential future outcomes. Forcing yourself to enrich abstract representations with concrete details will make the outcome appear more tangible, thus providing a stronger motivation to make future investments.

I’ll be spending the next few minutes engaging in detailed daydreams about a future free of gas and electricity bills. What are you going to do?


Trope Y, Liberman N. Construal-level theory of psychological distance. Psychol Rev. 2010 Apr;117(2):440-63. doi: 10.1037/a0018963. Erratum in: Psychol Rev. 2010 Jul;117(3):1024. PMID: 20438233; PMCID: PMC3152826.

Croote, D.E., Lai, B., Hu, J. et al. Delay discounting decisions are linked to temporal distance representations of world events across cultures. Sci Rep 10, 12913 (2020).

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