Meet your future self

John Muenzberg

Column by John Muenzberg, lecturer of philosophy

Why are you going to Murray State? Presumably it is because a bachelor’s degree will help you become the person you want to be in the future. Curiously, recent research in psychology indicates the further in the future we imagine the less we think of that future self as the same person as we are today. This has important consequences on our actions concerning ourselves and society in general.

When you think of yourself right now you imagine events happening to you from your perspective. If you stub your toe, you feel the pain. When you imagine yourself stubbing your toe, you imagine yourself feeling the pain.

But this is not how we think of other people. If I see my roommate stub his toe I can recognize he is in pain but I do not imagine it as my pain. I may empathize with his pain, but I do not confuse it for my own.

When you think of your immediate future self you imagine the events as if they will happen to you. If you think of your grade at the end of the semester you think of it as your grade. Your future excitement or disappointment will be your own, therefore you work for a good grade.

When you think of the distant future many people imagine the events as if they will happen to someone else. If you imagine your job prospects in five years, or where you might live in 10 years, you tend to think of these events as happening to someone you are observing rather than yourself. The problem with this is we react to our own future selves the way we might to our roommate, concerned or empathetic, but not as motivated as when the events might happen to us.

This means when we think about the effect today’s actions will have on our future we tend not to be as motivated because it is difficult to think of that person as the same person we are today. It is easy to tell people that they should save for retirement, but most people imagine their retired self as different from who they are today. We can tell people global warming will cause problems in 2050, but few people imagine that future as their future. Our more immediate demands feel like they happen to us, while future demands are viewed with disinterest.

One way to overcome this natural tendency is to stop talking about these actions as part of the will and instead simply describe them as necessary. Scolding people to save money for their retirement will have a limited effect because they don’t imagine that life as their own. A much more effective way is to make saving automatic and not a choice. For example, we require that people pay into federal social security whether they want to or not.

The other thing we can do is make the future seem more immediate. This forces decisions about the future to become decisions about today. We may not be able to imagine the hot and dry world of the future will affect our current self. Not imagining this means I will not reduce my gasoline consumption today. On the other hand, a federal carbon tax now will cause me to reduce my carbon emissions today in ways that warnings about a warmed future will not.

So many decisions we make today, such as what we eat or drink, whether we smoke or exercise or how treat the environment, will deeply affect us in the future even if it is difficult to imagine this future self and us as the same person. By understanding this, and employing effective strategies, we should be better at acting for our future good.