I want you to imagine yourself 20 years from now.
Imagine what you will be doing, who you will be hanging out with and how you will feel.
Can you do it?
If you found you could vividly imagine this you are connected to your future self. If you found it more difficult that’s understandable, 20 years is a very long time and a lot can happen.
We don’t really know how to predict the future, we can only make a guess based on our present. And yet we have to make decisions about our future selves all of the time. Should you look after yourself now to avoid health problems 10 years down the line? Will you be happy in 20 years if you marry your partner? Do you really want to cut your disposable income now to save for a pension? All of these are decisions that you have to make for your future self.
It turns out that we can predict how people will behave in the present based on how similar or dissimilar they feel to their future selves. For example, people who feel similar to their future selves are more likely to put off easy rewards now for bigger ones in the future (remember the Marshmallow Test? See link here) .
In fact, one group of researchers took this to extremes. They took pictures of participants and manipulated them so that they looked a lot older than they really were. They then put the participants in a virtual reality environment in which they looked in the mirror and saw either their present face or their older face. Afterwards, the participants did a monetary task in which they decided how much they would save for retirement. People who had seen the photo of their older selves saved a lot more than people who had seen their current photo .
Other research has shown that it’s not just about knowing that you will need something in the future but actually recognising that you have control over making it happen. People’s perception of the level of control they have over ageing, for example staying healthy and socially active, predicts how likely they are to plan financially for the future .
When it comes to decisions about the future it can be easy to put them off. “What will it matter if I hold off on starting a pension for another 5 or 10 years?” we say. Well actually it might make a big difference but if our future selves seem like distant other people it can be hard to feel empathy. If you’re a procrastinator when it comes to your pension why not try an exercise? Really try to imagine what you will be like in 20 years, what you will need and what you might regret doing or not doing that you have control over now.
And if you really need some external help upload a photo of yourself looking disappointed here: http://in20years.com/. Seeing your future self frowning at your present self might just spur you into action.
- Hershfield, H. E. (2011). Future self‐continuity: how conceptions of the future self transform intertemporal choice. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1235(1), 30-43.
- Heraty, N., & McCarthy, J. (2015). Unearthing psychological predictors of financial planning for retirement among late career older workers: Do self-perceptions of aging matter? Work, Aging and Retirement, 1(3), 274-283.