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Mind Your Body: Making Foresight 20/20

People will pay a premium for immediate over future rewards.

I like being tan. People say it makes me look young and healthy. The obvious irony is that, in the long run, sun exposure will make me look old and may lead to melanoma. But, as I like to say, only half-jokingly—and this is a motto that works well when procrastinating, too—"I'll let the future me worry about that." Not my problem.

Economists call this form of myopia temporal discounting: People will pay a premium for immediate over future rewards. Philosophers discuss discontinuity of the self: You can never step in the same river twice, so are you really the same person from one moment to the next, and should you care about the other yous in your timeline? Whatever your metaphysical position, psychologists are finding ways to help us connect to our future selves as a way of making better long-term decisions.

Stanford researcher Hal Ersner-Hershfield has preliminary results from a study in which virtual reality lets people experience old age. Subjects put on video goggles and move through a world where they look just like themselves, or similar, but with gray hair and wrinkles.

Standing in front of a virtual mirror, they're asked to decide how to spend a thousand dollars. Gifts? Parties? A retirement plan? Those with the elderly avatar put more than twice as much into long-term savings. Ersner-Hershfield says that embodying your future self may also encourage more responsible planning in other domains, such as relationships (should I cheat?), the environment (should I recycle?), and health (should I smoke?).

So what if you don't have a VR system at home? You might get results from simply thinking about what you'll be like when you age. "Realize that your interests and values will be similar when you retire," Ersner-Hershfield says. "Sure, a 25-year-old avid rock climber might not be as into scaling Everest when he's in his 60s, but he'll probably still like outdoor activities." Once identified with your future self, you might suddenly care whether he looks back on you and curses you for being such a knucklehead. —Matthew Hutson

Me, Myself, and my IRA

Three tech-free bridges to the future

  • Solid as a Rock: Think about the parts of your identity—your concerns, interests, desires—that will remain the same as you age.
  • Return to Sender: Write a letter to your future self. What do you want him to know about your life? Do you owe him any apologies?
  • Tea-time machine: Place two chairs face-to-face and visualize an older you in the other one. What would she say to you?