Say Hello to Your Future Self

Imagining your future self can reduce risky choices

Posted Feb 23, 2019

Each year, approximately 7 million people worldwide die from the consequences of tobacco use. That is as much as the entire population of Bulgaria. Smoking has an eye-watering long list of negative health consequences, and while cigarette sales have decreased since their peak in the second half of the 20th century, one in three adults continues to smoke. Chances are that you, dear reader, are a smoker yourself.

geralt / pixabay
Are you brave enough to meet your future self?
Source: geralt / pixabay

How can we explain these exorbitant numbers? Are people unaware of the dangerous health threat tobacco poses? While denial may play a role, mere misinformation is unlikely to be the reason. Anti-smoking campaigns continue to increase, and with cigarette packs featuring printed warnings like “smoking kills”, it’s hard to ignore the fact that fags simply aren’t good for you.

The reason that millions of people choose to inhale toxic fumes every day—against their better knowledge—is the strong temptation of instant rewards such as the relaxing effects of nicotine or social acceptance from peers. The human drive for immediate gratification and the challenges this imposes on our self-control are powerful factors affecting our choices. While little tricks can help us overcome the emotional pull of tempting rewards, long-term success in abstaining from negative habits crucially relies on our level of future-orientation, i.e. the extent to which we consider future outcomes.

Traditional strategies to boost future-orientation

Long-term goal attainment has been a topic of much research over the past decades, and psychologists recommend two main strategies to increase future-orientation.

1. Commitment tools

The first strategy refers to the use of commitment tools, which can help to formalize your goal and provide external incentives for improvement. A person trying to become more active, for example, might purchase a fitness tracker, which punishes inactivity with stern messages and warnings. Similarly, someone aiming to drop a size could try a weight loss programme, which rewards achievements during weekly weighing. Young employees might enroll in retirement plans entailing automatic bank transfers of regular payments towards their savings. Finally, smokers could enter strict cessation programmes which incentivize quitting with actual cash.

While such commitment tools have proven successful in many cases, they also share an important disadvantage: Most of these tools only work while they are in place, with participants likely to relapse into old habits when the external incentives are removed. Additionally, people are surprisingly crafty when it comes to cheating their commitment tools. In fact, there is a big online community sharing tips for outsmarting your Fitbit. And if you are guilty of attaching fitness trackers to electric mixers, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. 

2. Information about future rewards

It appears that an intrinsic, self-driven motivation leads to more sustainable results in the long-run. For this, psychologists recommend highlighting and explaining the value of future rewards and outcomes. It can be difficult to grasp the abstract, long-term effects of inactivity, over-eating, overspending or smoking, and many people simply fail to understand the future benefits of leading a healthier lifestyle and resisting temptations. This is why it’s so crucial to actively seek information on the consequences of certain behaviors. For example, while most people are aware that physical inactivity increases the risk of obesity and diabetes, comparatively fewer people realize that it can also affect their mental health. However, while the value of full information is undeniable, the mere communication of health risks may not be enough. Anti-smoking campaigns spread increasingly daunting messages, for example displaying off-putting images of smoking-related illnesses on cigarette cartons. Yet, a worryingly large proportion of the population continues to use tobacco on a regular basis.

Connect with your future self

What seems to be missing in many information campaigns is the personal element. Research by Daniel Goldstein and colleagues indicates that many people are characterized by a lack of self-continuity or a missing psychological connection with the future self. Extreme cases might include people who think of their future selves as completely different individuals, and it is hardly surprising that those people care little about long-term behavioral risks.

But how to address this dangerous disconnect between the present and future? The answer is surprisingly simple—imagine your personal future. While you can stoke imagination with the help of yogic meditation, there is a range of more tangible tools to help you achieve this. For example, an increasing number of websites allow you to calculate your very own risk scores for developing diabetes, heart disease or cancer. Some websites even let you calculate overall life expectancy, given your current engagement in risky behaviors. Putting a concrete number to your personal likelihood of falling ill or dying can present a powerful wake-up call!

Returning to the initial topic of smoking, there is one particular tool which might assist your imagination. Visual information is typically much easier to grasp than abstract risk scores, and many online applications are relying on this fact when simulating the consequences of tobacco use on people's looks. By uploading a recent headshot of yourself to “smokerface” (or a similar app), you can visualize the terrifying effects of smoking. There are few things as scary as meeting your older self and seeing fatigue, ill-health, cigarette-wrinkles, and yellowed skin. In fact, my own simulated smoker face looks so disturbing that I refuse to share the picture with anybody else (especially my husband)!

So how about you? Are you brave enough to meet your future self?

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