How Much Should You Care About Your Future? It Depends.

Research explains how we think about personal identity.

Posted Sep 28, 2017

Sarah Loreth/Flickr
Source: Sarah Loreth/Flickr

How much do you care about your future?

Psychologists Daniel M. Bartels and Lance J. Rips researched the question of personal identity. They were interested in how people make decisions about their current versus future selves. Moreover, they were interested in people's psychological connectedness with their future selves. Do we choose to delay rewards if we feel more connected to who we will be in the future?

Bartels and Rips found that people’s choices are more complex than a straightforward calculation to maximize rewards. Temporal distance played a major role. Temporal distance is simply the passing of time. The more time that passes, the less psychological connection people to their future selves.

The researchers asked, “What are the future selves to which you should direct your interest?” They were curious about people's intuitions about this question.

To answer this, they ran five studies.  

The present and future you

In Study 1, researchers asked participants to rank how closely they felt connected to themselves at various points in the future. Next, they had them choose between smaller cash rewards sooner or larger payments later. People who felt less connected to their future selves preferred the smaller, sooner reward. This is called “temporal discounting.”

In Study 2, Bartels and Rips did something similar. But this time they used a different reward. They had people choose the number of good days at work they would prefer at different stages in the future.

Again, they found that people discounted future utility when they felt less psychologically connected to their future selves. Put differently, the less connected they felt to their future selves, the more likely they preferred the more immediate reward. They tended to choose more good days at work in the short term if they felt less connected to their distant future selves.

After something big happens, are you someone else?

Psychological connectedness depends on more than just temporal distance, though. Events matter, too.

In Studies 3-5, participants read stories about six characters described as having major life experiences that might cause large or small changes to their identity. For example, some characters survived a natural disaster, learned that they were adopted, or accused of a serious crime. People were more likely to decide a character should take a smaller reward sooner, rather than a larger reward after a major life event had occurred. They chose the smaller reward for the character even when the event occurred only a short time in the future. In other words, people believe significant life events disrupt psychological connectedness.

The amount of time that passes or major events that occur throughout our lives changes the way we think about ourselves. Are we the same person 20 years from now? Are we the same person if we experience a significant event?

The researchers conclude, "In five studies, we found that participants’ preferences followed this principle: When they anticipated large changes, they chose to speed up rewards."

Future connections

The researchers drew inspiration from the philosopher Derek Parfit. Parfit, speaking about present and future selves, has said, "My concern for my future may correspond to the degree of connectedness between me now and myself in the future...since connectedness is nearly always weaker over long periods, I can rationally care less about my further future. This claim defends a new kind of discount rate. This is a discount rate, not with respect to time itself, but with respect to [connectedness]."

But Parfit describes personal identity as a sequence of overlapping selves. And the connection thins as we think about ourselves further into the future.

For Parfit, your identification with your future self depends on holding direct psychological connections with this future version of you. This includes “the sharing of memories, intentions, beliefs, desires, and other psychological features.” The strength of these psychological connections tends to decrease as we think about ourselves further into the future.

We often emphasize the importance of patience. We think we should act in a way to take care of our future selves. Parfit takes this one step further. He described this thin connection between our present and future selves. And he says we should think of others in the same way. If we have reason to take care of our future selves, even if we don’t want to, then we also have reason to take care of other people.

You can follow Rob on Twitter here: @robkhenderson.


Bartels, D. M., & Rips, L. J. (2010). Psychological connectedness and intertemporal choice. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139(1), 49—69.

Parfit, D. (1984). What We Believe Ourselves To Be. In Reasons and Persons. Oxford University Press.