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. From Wired:

    Know What You’ll Look Like in 30 Years — Maybe Then You’ll Max Out Your 401(k)

    The wrinkly, saggy results aren’t pretty. And that’s the point.

    In a 2011 study cited by Merrill Edge (Merrill Lynch’s online discount brokerage), Stanford behavioral economics researchers say that we’re often reluctant to save for retirement because deep down we don’t identify with that older person we’ll one day be: “To people estranged from their future selves, saving is like a choice between spending money today or giving it to a stranger years from now.”

  2. The ability to delay gratification is both a trait that varies among people, and a learned habit.

    Has anyone studied to see if there’s any correlation among people who overeat, use drugs, fail to save and so forth. I suspect it’s not an intellectual thing or a reasoned thing, but an inability to endure current discomfort for future rewards.

  3. “… 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…”

    I remember admiring and even envying many Nortel executives who were retiring when the company was downsizing before it eventually went belly up… Most of them in their early or late 50-ties..set for comfortable retirement…with their golf, fishing, skiing, traveling etc. plans…
    Someone closer to them looked them up a couple years later …
    7 out of all he could connect with were dead…One said that his retirement turned out to be just “…a transition from awaiting to retire to awaiting death…”

    Upon further research about the 7 dead executives he found out that they should have had their tombstones inscripted like Gallagher…

    http://www.readthespirit.com/ourvalues/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2014/04/Tombstone-I-wish-I-had-spent-more-time-at-the-office.jpg

  4. Is finally growing a heart for that human ‘evolutionary universal’ known across time (especially by non-decadent self-absorbed USAmericans) as ‘faith, theology or religion’ part of your retirement plans or do you instead plan to keep being empty of ‘soul’ (not in the Ayn Randian & others sense of ‘just consciousness’) as your twilight years advance?

    To me, amongst the saddest cases are older people who could (have) be(en) works of faithful art, in whichever culture they live(d), in the way of dignity, honour and tested wisdom in community, but are instead works of faithless self-absorbed vanity. Let’s hope faithless vanity isn’t on any skeptic here’s plan of ‘dignified aging’ as if self-centred retirement trumps all priority. A late life of angry-spirited ‘skepticism’ seems a rather tough and unenviable ‘twilight’ phenomenon to have to endure. : (

    Prosperity & evil? Might want to check what Job said? “Not listening, not even curious, not even a bit,” threateningly responds the atheist. That, folks is why TSZ is a born losing site. No heart; only your ‘minds’ viewed materialistically.

    TSZ is Lizzie’s ‘bastard child’ site that she no longer even claims; an echo of its confused neuro-obsessed maker. Pretty much the only thing ‘positive’ here comes occasionally from the ‘unorthodox’ theists & it’s not their ‘scientific’ ideas that are the ‘positive’ part.

    Look further. Or wait. What’s that? You can’t because God removed your ability to experience anything more. Is that it?

  5. Gregory,

    When I retire, I plan on developing as many spiritual dimensions as string theorists are using by then. That would seem to provide the best balance between spirituality and science

  6. dazz,

    Gregory,

    When I retire, I plan on developing as many spiritual dimensions as string theorists are using by then. That would seem to provide the best balance between spirituality and science

    Heh. Make sure one of your spiritual dimensions is vertical. That’s very, very important to Gregory.

  7. dazz:
    Gregory,

    When I retire, I plan on developing as many spiritual dimensions as string theorists are using by then. That would seem to provide the best balance between spirituality and science

    What’s a spiritual dimension? In your view…

  8. I’m inclined to take this post as an illustrative example of pseudo-profound bullshit.

    Of course you are, Neil.

  9. J-Mac: What’s a spiritual dimension? In your view…

    It’s like… when your inner, deepest substance transcends it’s meta-substrate in perfect harmony with the Cosmos, and at least 3 of it’s Fundamental Force Fields

  10. J-Mac:

    I remember admiring and even envying many Nortel executives who were retiring when the company was downsizing before it eventually went belly up… Most of them in their early or late 50-ties..set for comfortable retirement…with their golf, fishing, skiing, traveling etc. plans…
    Someone closer to them looked them up a couple years later …
    7 out of all he could connect with were dead…One said that his retirement turned out to be just “…a transition from awaiting to retire to awaiting death…”

    Anyone who thinks that “I’m going to golf and travel” constitutes an adequate retirement plan is kidding themselves. People need meaning in their lives, and recreation alone can’t deliver that.

    The good news is that there are plenty of meaningful activities available besides work.

  11. dazz: It’s like… when your inner, deepest substance transcends it’s meta-substrate in perfect harmony with the Cosmos, and at least 3 of it’s Fundamental Force Fields

    That’s what those are? I got a bunch of those!

  12. petrushka,

    I guess not being able to retire has some advantages.

    If so, I haven’t seen them. Being financially secure gives you options, and one of those options is to work if you find that meaningful. But if you’re secure, you get to choose that work without worrying about what it pays.

    Options are good.

  13. I suppose if you hate your job and your employer, retirement offers the opportunity to find a lower paying job that you like. I have a half time job I like, working for someone who likes me.

    I just can’t afford to quit.

  14. walto: That’s what those are? I got a bunch of those!

    I know! I can feel your force fields wiggling in perfect harmonic phase with the Cosmos!

  15. walto: That’s what those are? I got a bunch of those!

    dazz: I know! I can feel your force fields wiggling in perfect harmonic phase with the Cosmos!

    Bad news for both of us. Turns out my refrigerator needs replacing

  16. From The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal:

    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.

    Princeton University psychologist Emily Pronin has shown that this failure of imagination leads us to treat our future selves like strangers. In her experiments, students are asked to make a series of self-control choices. Some are choosing what they are willing to do today, while others are choosing for themselves in the future. Still others get to decide what another student—the next person to show up for the study—will have to do. And though you might think we would naturally form an alliance between our present selves and future selves, it turns out that we are more likely to save our present selves from anything too stressful, but burden our future selves like we would a stranger.

    In one experiment, students were asked to drink a revolting liquid made from ketchup and soy sauce. The students got to choose how much of the drink they were willing to consume in the name of science. The more they drank, the more helpful it would be to the researchers—a perfect “I will” power challenge. Some students were told that the drinking part of the study would take place in a matter of minutes. Other students were told that the drinking part of the study would be scheduled for next semester. Their present selves were off the hook, and their future selves would be the ones choking down the concoction. Still other students were asked to choose how much of the ketchup cocktail the next participant in the study would be required to drink. What would you do? What would future you do? What would you expect of a stranger?

    If you’re like most people, your future self has more of an appetite for science (and soy sauce) than present you. The students assigned their future selves, and the next participant, more than twice as much of the disgusting liquid (almost half a cup) as they were willing to drink in the present (two tablespoons). Students showed the same bias when asked to donate time for a good cause. They signed up their future selves for 85 minutes of tutoring fellow students in the next semester. They were even more generous with other students’ time, signing them up for 120 minutes of tutoring. But when asked to commit for the present semester, their present selves had only 27 minutes to spare. In a third study, students were given the choice between a small amount of money now, or a larger delayed payment. When choosing for their present selves, they took the immediate reward. But they expected their future selves—and other students—to delay gratification.

    Thinking so highly of our future selves would be fine if we could really count on our future selves to behave so nobly. But more typically, when we get to the future, our ideal future self is nowhere to be found, and our same old self is left making the decisions. Even as we’re in the middle of a self-control conflict, we foolishly expect that our future selves will be unconflicted. The future self keeps being pushed into the future, like a deus ex machina that will emerge to save us from our present selves in the very last act. We put off what we need to do because we are waiting for someone else to show up who will find the change effortless.

  17. petrushka,

    I suppose if you hate your job and your employer, retirement offers the opportunity to find a lower paying job that you like.

    Who said anything about hating your job and employer? Financial security gives you the option to accept a better opportunity even if you’re not unhappy with your current situation.

    It also gives you the security of knowing that you can deal with unexpected expenses and events — say your car needs major repairs, or the roof needs to be replaced, or you develop a medical condtion and can no longer work.

    That financial security is better than financial insecurity is a no-brainer. It gives you options. You don’t see people saying “I’m sending my Social Security checks back to the government because I want to limit my options.”

  18. J-Mac: Someone closer to them looked them up a couple years later …
    7 out of all he could connect with were dead…One said that his retirement turned out to be just “…a transition from awaiting to retire to awaiting death…”

    I would prefer not working waiting for death than having to sit in traffic waiting for death.

  19. Gregory:

    Is finally growing a heart for that human ‘evolutionary universal’ known across time (especially by non-decadent self-absorbed USAmericans) as ‘faith, theology or religion’ part of your retirement plans or do you instead plan to keep being empty of ‘soul’ (not in the Ayn Randian & others sense of ‘just consciousness’) as your twilight years advance?

    You’re a tendentious twit, Gregory.

    Let me rephrase that for you:

    Do you intend to remain rational during retirement, or will you choose to wallow in goofy superstition in order to stave off anxieties about death?

    I’ll take rationality.

  20. Gregory:
    Prosperity & evil? Might want to check what Job said? “Not listening, not even curious, not even a bit,” threateningly responds the atheist. That, folks is why TSZ is a born losing site. No heart; only your ‘minds’ viewed materialistically.

    TSZ is Lizzie’s ‘bastard child’ site that she no longer even claims; an echo of its confused neuro-obsessed maker. Pretty much the only thing ‘positive’ here comes occasionally from the ‘unorthodox’ theists & it’s not their ‘scientific’ ideas that are the ‘positive’ part.

    Look further. Or wait. What’s that? You can’t because God removed your ability to experience anything more. Is that it?

    Yep, which came first,the bitterness or your theology?

  21. keiths: It also gives you the security of knowing that you can deal with unexpected expenses and events — say your car needs major repairs, or the roof needs to be replaced, or you develop a medical condtion and can no longer work.

    Savings is a good thing. Safety nets are a good thing. Not working, for many people, is a bad thing.

  22. petrushka,

    Savings is a good thing. Safety nets are a good thing.

    Options are a good thing. Financial security gives you options.

    Not working, for many people, is a bad thing.

    When you’re financially secure, work is an option too. And since you don’t need the money, you can choose your work based on other criteria.

    Given that most Americans are unhappy at work, the option to quit or change jobs without worrying about money is extremely valuable.

    As someone who has complained bitterly about his own financial situation, surely you can understand the benefits of financial security. You’re not sending your SS checks back, are you?

  23. dazz: It’s like… when your inner, deepest substance transcends it’s meta-substrate in perfect harmony with the Cosmos, and at least 3 of it’s Fundamental Force Fields

    I’m sorry but this is too deep for me or… don’t know now…I’ll think about it though as I believe there are unlimited dimensions…

  24. newton: I would prefer not working waiting for death than having to sit in traffic waiting for death.

    You must live in LA or the like…I sympathize with you… I live in Toronto…

  25. J-Mac: I believe there are unlimited dimensions…

    and force fields, don’t forget the force fields. those are fundamental

  26. Keiths: i complain about my financial situation, but you ignore the obvious point. For many people, actually ceasing to earn money is not a good thing.

  27. petrushka,

    A reminder of how our exchange began:

    petrushka:

    I guess not being able to retire has some advantages.

    keiths:

    If so, I haven’t seen them. Being financially secure gives you options, and one of those options is to work if you find that meaningful. But if you’re secure, you get to choose that work without worrying about what it pays.

    Options are good.

    Being unable to retire due to financial insecurity leaves you with fewer options. That is not an “advantage”:

  28. Glen,

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

    It’s just a taker.

    Be careful. Your former self said the same thing about you.

    But it’s a good point. God should make time travel possible so there could be some reciprocity.

  29. Things get interesting (and complicated) when you start asking questions about the continuity of the self, but my inclination is to leave that for later in the thread.

  30. Not everyone is the same, keiths. Not everyone responds well to the option of being unnecessary. That’s true of young people as well as old people.

    It’s becoming an increasing problem as automation replaces workers.

  31. petrushka,

    Being able to retire does not force you to become “unnecessary”. When you’re financially secure, you have the option of continuing to work if you find it fulfilling. How many times must I repeat that?

    Also, there are other ways to be “necessary” besides working.

    Having the option of working is better than having no choice but to work. It’s a clear advantage.

  32. petrushka:
    Keiths: i complain about my financial situation, but you ignore the obvious point. For many people, actually ceasing to earn money is not a good thing.

    For most people ,I would guess.

  33. From New York magazine:

    To Change Your Life, Learn How to Trust Your Future Self

    The gist of the article is that we discount future rewards, rationally enough, based on the perceived likelihood that we’ll actually receive those rewards. If we trust our future selves to maintain the behaviors needed to secure those rewards, we discount those rewards less. When future rewards loom larger, it is easier for us to exert willpower and delay gratification.

    In other words, trusting our future selves makes it easier to do the right thing in the present.

    The article suggests that the key is to establish a pattern of success with very small, doable goals so that you begin to trust your future self in this way. It becomes a virtuous circle: more trust leads to better behavior, and better behavior leads to more trust. Future rewards loom larger and larger in the present, and it becomes easier to choose the “virtuous” path instead of succumbing to temptation.

  34. Off topic…
    How long does it take to approve a post on this blog? Longer than my creating my own blog and inviting people in to comment?

  35. J-Mac,

    If you have an OP that’s ready to be published, you can notify the moderators via the Moderation Issues thread.

  36. keiths:
    J-Mac:

    Anyone who thinks that “I’m going to golf and travel” constitutes an adequate retirement plan is kidding themselves.People need meaning in their lives, and recreation alone can’t deliver that.

    The good news is that there are plenty of meaningful activities available besides work.

    Just let me know what those meaningful activities are and I will surely explore them to death before I ever retire…

  37. City mice famously DON’T prepare. (Not defending this approach, just disclosing one of my faults.)

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