Future events seemed more “proximal” or occurring sooner when volunteers considered in days rather than months or years.
This shift in perspective made the Future Self and the future event seem more tangible and connected to the Present Self, enabling participants to begin progress toward distant goals, according to University of Michigan’s Neil Lewis and Daphna Oyserman of the University of Southern California.
Many people know the dilemma between purchasing expensive clothes now instead of putting the money into retirement savings or between enjoying dessert now when “swimsuit season” is just weeks away.
This pull between current rewards and costs vs future events and required efforts was labeled temporal discounting by Stanford’s Kacey Ballard and Brian Knutson.
People may not act when considering future events like retirement because they focus more on whether to take action in the present.
In contrast, people tend to concentrate how to act when faced with imminent situations requiring attention, according to temporal construal theory, described by NYU’s Yaacov Trope and Nira Liberman.
Further, people may not act when an anticipated Future Self seems incongruous or disconnected with the Present Self, found Williams College’s Kris Kirby with Nancy Petry of University of Vermont and Virginia Tech’s Warren Bickel.
When volunteers have begun preparing for the future, such as a work presentation, saving for a home, retirement, or children’s education, they saw metrics implying when a future event will occur.
More than 160 volunteers considered six scenarios — three with time metrics and three without.
For the time-metric situations, participants imagined that they were shopping, studying, or carrying out other tasks in preparation for future events — a birthday party, presentation, wedding, exam — and were asked to report how long it would be until those events occurred.
When participants considered time in the smaller of two possible units, the event seemed closer – an average of 29.7 days sooner when considered in days instead of months and an average of 8.7 months sooner when considered in months instead of years.
In other Lewis and Oyserman studies, more than 1100 participants in the U.S. indicated when they should start saving for a future scenario such as a child’s college education, measured either as 18 years or 6,570 days.
People who realized that this event would arrive within days planned to start saving four times sooner than those who thought that educational expenditures were years away, even when controlling for income, age, and self-control.
In contrast, when participants hadn’t begun preparing for an expected future event, they considered metrics as implying when they should start preparing.
This difference in time perspective can affect whether people achieve future goals that require consistent, long-term investments of time, effort, and money.
In fact, Oyserman argues that changing time perspective is “… a new way to think about reaching goals that does not require willpower and is not about having character or caring.”
Since the majority of people do not save save sufficient financial resources for required future expenditures, changing time metrics to more granular measures can make both future goals and one’s Future Self more aligned with the Present Self.
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