We deliberate about our future selves a good deal. We try to decide on the best courses to take at school, which job will be the most fulfilling, which house to buy, whether to get a tattoo and how much money to save. These are all choices we make now, which have implications for our future selves. If I get the tattoo now, it’s my future self that has to live with it or go to the expense of having it removed. If I spend all my money now, that will leave my future self without any savings.
There has been quite a bit of research into ways of getting us all to care more about our future selves, and hence to act, now, in ways that serve those future selves.
A series of experiments at UCLA found that making one’s future self vivid in various ways resulted in people behaving, in the present, in ways that benefit that future self.
When people were shown age-progressed renderings of their future self, they were more inclined to accept a later monetary reward—one their future self would receive—rather than an immediate reward—one their current self would receive.
When high school students were given an online avatar representing their future self on a social network site, and they exchanged messages with the avatar that aimed to get them to think about that future self, those students were less likely to be delinquent.
The idea, of course, is that these kinds of interventions bring our future self metaphorically closer to us. We get to see that self, in some sense, and the experiences of that self become especially salient. Since we anticipate having those experiences—since after all, that is our future self—this tends to make us more likely to act in ways that will benefit that self, rather than harm it.
This research suggests that there are some tips we can all take if we want to make better choices for our future.
First, spend some time each week visualising not just the future, but also your future self. The more vivid you can make this visualisation the better. Think about what your self is like: what they look like, what they want, and what they value.
Second, imagine a conversation with that future self. Put yourself in their shoes (as it were) and imagine what they would say to you and what you would say back. Are they happy with you? Or are they complaining that you left them with no money, a terrible relationship, and too many cats? Are their complaints legitimate?
Third, don't just have a conversation with your future self; enter a negotiation with them. There are things you want. There are things they want. Sometimes, they want things that require you to make sacrifices (such as not eating the chocolate cake, or not spending the money). Sometimes there are things that you want, that requires that they make sacrifices (such as feeling ill from eating too much cake or having no savings). Imagine negotiating with that future self. Work out what you both think is reasonable. That will be a useful guide to deciding how you should act.
And lastly, and perhaps counter-intuitively, ask yourself the question: If this weren’t me, but someone else would I act in this manner? In some good sense, we likely care more about our future selves than we do about most other people. After all, we are going to end up being those future selves. Yet we often treat those selves worse than we would treat a random stranger.
If we get a tattoo today, we bind our future selves to have that tattoo, and we do so without ever having consulted those future selves, let alone getting their consent. Yet none of us would kidnap even a random stranger, and tattoo them without their consent. None of us (well, most of us, at least) would not steal the life savings from a random stranger. And yet many of us steal the life savings from our future selves.
Ask yourself this: if your future self were someone else—a stranger—would you act as you are planning to act if that stranger were the one to bear the consequences of that action? Would you tattoo that stranger without their consent? Would you leave them penniless without their consent? If on reflection, you would not, then this should surely be reason to think seriously about whether you ought to do, to your future self, something you wouldn’t do to a stranger.