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A Massive Threat to Having a Pessimistic Future Outlook

When you're future is fear-based, you won't make long-term investments.

Key points

  • Being connected to your longer-term future self leads to proactive and positive behaviors.
  • With a fear-based or pessimistic future outlook, you're unlikely to make long-term investments in that future.

"By our nature as rational, conscious creatures, we cannot help but think of the future. But most people, out of fear, limit their view of the future to a narrow range. Thoughts of tomorrow, a few weeks ahead, perhaps a vague plan for the months to come. We are generally dealing with so many immediate battles that it is hard for us to lift our gaze above the moment. It is a law of power, however, that the further and deeper we contemplate the future, the greater our capacity to shape it to our desires."--Robert Greene (The 50th Law)

Recent research highlights the importance of being connected with your longer-term future self. Research by Hal Hershfield shows that when a person is emotionally connected with their longer-term future self, they:

  1. Are more likely to save and invest for retirement
  2. Eat better and exercise more
  3. Avoid delinquency and other self-harmful behaviors

Being connected with your future self enables you to see them as a friend. And when you see someone as a friend, you aren't "put off" by making sacrifices for them, such as sacrifices of time, money, and more, Hershfield explains.

Importantly, if someone has pessimistic views toward the future, they are unlikely to make long-term investments in that future—whether that be financial investments, or other forms of investment, such as time and effort. For instance, research on hope theory explains that hope is comprised of three factors:

  1. A clear goal
  2. Pathways thinking, or the ability to find or produce workable pathways to the desired outcome
  3. Agency thinking, or the ability to motivate oneself to action, and the belief that your actions will have an impact

Hope relies on seeing a pathway forward. If you believe the future is bleak, or that the current pathway lack efficacy, then you are unlikely to make investments or "sacrifices" in that future. Without making investments in the long-term future, that future is unlikely to grow and bear the desired fruit. Hence, going back to Hershfield's research, if we are not connected to our future selves, and have optimism or hope in our future, then we won't make the needed sacrifices or investments here and now to improve our future.

One form of "investment" would be what psychologists call deliberate practice, which is the systematic way to develop skill or expertise of any form. Deliberate practice is challenging and often involves coaching and feedback. Yet, if a person is pessimistic in their future outlook, they are unlikely to engage in deliberate practice. For example, they may not believe they have the capability (a "fixed mindset") or they may believe there is no possible pathway (low hope) to their desired outcome. Thus, with such an outlook, they are unlikely to undergo the needed practice and work to get where they want to go. Without hope and expectancy, motivation will likely be lacking. As Thomas Suddendorf, Melissa Brinums, and Kana Imuta stated:

"Only through imaging a Future Self with improved skills may we be able to motivate, plan, and execute the honing of skills through deliberate practice."

Conclusion

In an article on prospection, Martin Seligan and others make the case that as people, we are pulled forward by the future we see for ourselves. An optimistic future view will likely lead to different present actions and behaviors than a pessimistic future outlook. Critically, it seems that if someone is not connected with their longer-term future self, and if they are fearful about the future, they are unlikely to make needed investments in their future that would likely make it better; such as investing in retirement, eating healthy, getting further education, and more.

References

Excerpted from Be Your Future Self Now.

Bryan, C. J., & Hershfield, H. E. (2013). You owe it to yourself: Boosting retirement saving with a responsibility-based appeal. Decision, 1(S), 2.

Greene, R. (2010). The 50th law (Vol. 1). Profile Books.

Hershfield, H. E., Goldstein, D. G., Sharpe, W. F., Fox, J., Yeykelis, L., Carstensen, L. L., & Bailenson, J. N. (2011). Increasing saving behavior through age-progressed renderings of the future self. Journal of Marketing Research, 48(SPL), S23-S37.

Murphy, L., & Thomas, L. (2008, June). Dangers of a fixed mindset: implications of self-theories research for computer science education. In Proceedings of the 13th annual conference on Innovation and technology in computer science education (pp. 271-275).

Rutchick, A. M., Slepian, M. L., Reyes, M. O., Pleskus, L. N., & Hershfield, H. E. (2018). Future self-continuity is associated with improved health and increases exercise behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 24(1), 72.

Seligman, M. E., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2013). Navigating into the future or driven by the past. Perspectives on psychological science, 8(2), 119-141.

Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological inquiry, 13(4), 249-275.

Snyder, C. R., Rand, K. L., & Sigmon, D. R. (2002). Hope theory: A member of the positive psychology family.

Snyder, C. R., Shorey, H. S., Cheavens, J., Pulvers, K. M., Adams III, V. H., & Wiklund, C. (2002). Hope and academic success in college. Journal of educational psychology, 94(4), 820.

Snyder, C. R., Lopez, S. J., Shorey, H. S., Rand, K. L., & Feldman, D. B. (2003). Hope theory, measurements, and applications to school psychology. School psychology quarterly, 18(2), 122.

Suddendorf, T., Brinums, M., & Imuta, K. (2016). Shaping one's future self: The development of deliberate practice.

Van Gelder, J. L., Hershfield, H. E., & Nordgren, L. F. (2013). Vividness of the future self predicts delinquency. Psychological science, 24(6), 974-980.

The Weekend University. (2021). The Psychology of Your Future Self— Professor Hal Hershfield. Accessed on May 3, 2022, at https://www. youtube.com/watch?v=QBdIeC7FYkU

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