You and your future self

In my final months at work, I had many conversations about retirement with friends and colleagues who asked about my plans and preparations and shared their own. I was struck by the wide range of attitudes they expressed. For some, retirement was a concrete reality, something they had visualized and thought about in detail. For others it was more abstract, as if it were going to happen to someone else entirely. You might expect this to correlate straightforwardly with age: the closer to retirement, the more concrete the thinking about it. That didn’t seem to be the case for many people.

It got me thinking about the relationships we have with our future selves. Preparing for retirement is a classic example of delayed gratification — something that “present you” does for the benefit of a distant “future you”. It made me wonder if the folks who were actively planning and preparing for retirement identified more strongly with their future selves than those whose approach was more lackadaisical.

Some interesting research has been done on this and related questions. I’ll mention more of it in the comment thread, but a good place to start is with this article by Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

Self-Control Is Just Empathy With Your Future Self

The same part of the brain that allows us to step into the shoes of others also helps us restrain ourselves.

The concluding paragraph:

This tells us that impulsivity and selfishness are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites restraint and empathy. Perhaps this is why people who show dark traits like psychopathy and sadism score low on empathy but high on impulsivity. Perhaps it’s why impulsivity correlates with slips among recovering addicts, while empathy correlates with longer bouts of abstinence. These qualities represent our successes and failures at escaping our own egocentric bubbles, and understanding the lives of others—even when those others wear our own older faces.


60 thoughts on “You and your future self

  1. J-Mac: How long does it take to approve a post on this blog?

    Approved (published).

    It takes until somebody notices it. It’s best for you to mention in the moderation thread. That gets our attention quickly.

  2. J-Mac,

    Just let me know what those meaningful activities are..

    You have to figure that out for yourself. They aren’t the same for everyone.

    … and I will surely explore them to death before I ever retire…

    Unless they can’t be “explored to death” while you’re still working. One of my plans is to volunteer in South America while becoming fluent in Spanish. I couldn’t exactly zip off to Peru every weekend while I was working.

  3. From

    Are You Giving the Shaft to your Future Self?

    While your life as a baby has everything to do with the random luck of genetic composition and what sort of parents you were handed, you quickly get the opportunity to start influencing things yourself. By the time you get to my age, almost all of the features of your daily life, both the jewels and the turds, gifts and shaftings, are things deposited on the Conveyor Belt of Time by earlier versions of you. You have your Past Self to thank for all of this. But until you acknowledge that, you can never become the generous benefactor that your Future Self deserves.

  4. From the Harvard Business Review:

    You Make Better Decisions If You “See” Your Senior Self

    The finding: Many people feel disconnected from the individuals they’ll be in the future and, as a result, discount rewards that would later benefit them. But brief exposure to aged images of the self can change that behavior.

    The research: Hal Hershfield ran fMRI scans on subjects and found that the neural patterns seen when they described themselves 10 years in the future were markedly different from those seen when they described their current selves (but similar to those seen when they talked about actors). In a later asset allocation task, people whose brain activity changed the most when they began discussing their future selves were the least likely to favor large long-term gains over small immediate ones. However, in follow-up experiments, when subjects were shown aged images of themselves, that tendency disappeared.

  5. Does nobody else here have any family? It’s hard to be disconnected from the realities of your future self when you’re taking (or have taken) care of aging parents and in-laws and have children and grandchildren who occasionally need/will need your help. For those of us with large families, we have to face these realities as an ongoing part of our lives.

  6. William,

    There are really two separate questions there.

    One is whether people are realistic about their future situations, including the challenges that will be presented by family. Another is whether they are realistic about their future selves and their ability to deal with those future situations. It’s possible to be realistic about one but not the other.

    In this thread, I’m concentrating on the latter. Kelly McGonigal writes:

    It is one of the most puzzling but predictable mental errors humans make: We think about our future selves like different people. We often idealize them, expecting our future selves to do what our present selves cannot manage. Sometimes we mistreat them, burdening them with the consequences of our present selves’ decisions. Sometimes we simply misunderstand them, failing to realize that they will have the same thoughts and feelings as our present selves. However we think of our future selves, rarely do we see them as fully us.

  7. keiths,

    When you are in the life of your parents and grandparents (meaning, taking care of them as they age), you are face to face – every day – with the reality of what your future self will be like; its needs, challenges, problems, etc. – financial, medical, ambulatory, etc. It isn’t a case of using one’s imagination, it’s an every-day part of your life.

    I suppose in today’s world the lack of that kind of hands-on, direct interaction can leave one entirely disassociated with what it is going to fully mean to age.

  8. William,

    When you are in the life of your parents and grandparents (meaning, taking care of them as they age), you are face to face – every day – with the reality of what your future self will be like; its needs, challenges, problems, etc. – financial, medical, ambulatory, etc.

    No, you’re face to face with what their situation is like. How much you internalize that, and how much you identify with your future self, is a separate question.

    There are people who watch a parent die from lung cancer and nevertheless continue to smoke.

  9. With the practical discussion behind us, I’d like to bring up the philosophical issues I alluded to earlier.

    Glen joked above:

    What has my future self done for my former or current self?

    It’s just a taker.

    Though he was joking, there is a real philosophical issue behind that comment: Are our future selves really us? In what sense(s)?

    I’ll first note that since our future selves share our genes, there is a natural selective pressure toward identifying with them, especially in the short run. Suppose you consistently reason that it’s not worth walking to the refrigerator because it’s your future self, not you, who will get to do the eating. Or that there’s no reason to run from an approaching predator because it’s your future self, not you, who will have to deal with the problem. A person who reasons that way will find themselves running short on future selves.

    Yet identical twins see themselves as individuals, despite sharing their genes, and in any case most of us see ourselves as far more than just our genes, so the genetic answer is incomplete and unsatisfying.

    I’ll discuss other possible answers in future comments.


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