Clearly-Imagined Future Self Enables More Effective Goal Planning

Most people choose near-term payoffs over distant benefits, often leading to poor outcomes when the future arrives.

Hal Hersfield

Hal Hersfield

Many individuals have difficulty envisioning a personal future because a distant time horizon is more abstract than the tangible reality of an extended present.
This bias toward short-term rewards generally leads to inadequate planning for future eventualities, like health care and financial requirements.

However, making the intangible future more concrete alters this near-term preference.

Laura Carstensen

Laura Carstensen

Volunteers received a visual aid to clearly imagining a future self by viewing a current photo of themselves or a digitally-aged photo from the same present-day view in a study by NYU’s Hal Hershfield collaborating with Daniel Goldstein of London Business School, Stanford’s  William F. SharpeLaura CarstensenJeremy Bailenson, and Leo Yeykelis plus Jesse Fox of Ohio State University.

Jeremy Bailenson

Jeremy Bailenson

The team asked participants in each group to estimate the amount of their income they would save for retirement.
People who saw their aged photos said they would save substantially more money than those who saw the present-day image.

Leo Yeykelis

Leo Yeykelis

When participants interacted with realistic, immersive age-progressed renderings of themselves, they tended to defer present rewards for future monetary rewards.

Hershfield and collaborators argued that the aged photos are vivid, less-deniable glimpses of a personal future.
These images enabled people to more realistically imagine their distant future lives by enhancing their experience of “self-continuity” over time.

Jesse Fox

Jesse Fox

Financial planners, health care advisors, and life insurers have applied these findings by developing a commercial version of this future self-image, to enable people to develop more realistic savings and retirement strategies for a tangible future self.

Emily Pronin

Emily Pronin

Another team’s findings supported Hershfield’s suggestion that people view their future selves as “other” and alien rather than personally relevant and meaningful.

Christopher Olivola

Christopher Olivola

Princeton’s Emily Pronin, Christopher Olivola, now of University of Warwick and Kathleen Kennedy, now of Columbia, asked participants to estimate the amount of an unsavory liquid mixture they would be willing to drink immediately and in several months to advance scientific knowledge.
In addition, volunteers estimated the amount of this liquid that another participant should drink.

Kathleen Kennedy

Kathleen Kennedy

Most volunteers judged that they would drink more in the future and that others should drink about the same amount.
However, participants estimated that they would drink only about half as much if consumed immediately.

This suggests that judgments about the future self and unknown other people are similarly distant from the present self.

These time perception biases include:

  • Quasi-hyperbolic time discounting, which leads most people to make an inter-temporal choice for a smaller payoff in the present instead of a larger payoff in the future.
    They attributed this trend to discounting a less-imaginable future payoff for a more tangible, nearer-term benefit.
  • Affective forecasting errors, described in a previous blog post, leading to inaccurate predictions of future choices, preferences, emotional reactions, and behaviors due to:
    • Projection biasAssuming that a present state will occur at a future time in a different circumstance,
    • Impact bias Overestimating future emotional responses to adverse events, and underestimating adaptability and coping,
    • Narrow bracketing — Considering individual decisions and outcomes without reference to context or long-term additive effects with other decisions and circumstances.

-*How do you overcome biases to plan for future goals and needs?


Twitter:  @kathrynwelds
Blog: – Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary
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©Kathryn Welds


3 thoughts on “Clearly-Imagined Future Self Enables More Effective Goal Planning

  1. kathrynwelds Post author

    Thanks to Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon, Research Director, Panel Management at Catalyst, for mentioning Yaacov Trope’s work on psychological distance.
    A recent article with his NYU colleague, SoYon Rim and Jochim Hansen of University of Salzburg, provide an overview of his work on the impact of psychological distance (temporal distance, spatial distance, social distance, and hypotheticality) on judgments:

    SUNY Stony Brook’s Karen Sobel-Lojeski discusses”Virtual distance” in the workplace, and I discussed this in an earlier post on the impact of workplace co-location on productivity, collaboration and innovation:

  2. kathrynwelds Post author

    Thanks to Harry Nagendra for mentioning his experience with Joachim Hansen’s work on the relationship between psychological distance and causality perceptions.
    Hansen’s research considers the impact of cognitive processing (“fluency”) and mental representations (level of abstractness) on forming judgments and decisions.
    Wide-ranging studies investigate perceptions of time, truth, money, smoking, memory, humor, familiarity and more.

  3. Pingback: Multiple Paths Toward Goals Can Motivate, then Derail Success | Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary

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