Present you vs. Future you

It’s almost the end of January. How are your New Year’s Resolutions holding up? If you haven’t stuck to them, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in the majority. There are many reasons we don’t meet our well-intentioned goals to go to the gym more, quit smoking, or go to bed earlier at night. One of those reasons is that the future person who those resolutions were designed to help is a different person than who you are today. You might both have the same name, but it can be hard to see other things you have in common. Why should you do things that make life more difficult for you today just to help this future person who you know very little about?

Biologically, our cells continually die and get replaced by new ones, so physically, we’re not made of the same stuff from one day to the next. Psychologically, we change too. We might not love the same people or hold the same hopes for our life today that we had last year or even next week. Because we know that we’re such dynamic creatures, it can be difficult to concretely imagine ourselves in the future and to feel connected to that person. Even though our future self might be distant and unfamiliar, we do still want to do things to help that person. Consciously, we know that that future person will someday be our present self. This kind of thinking encourages us to do things like work on this week’s blog post, since future me will be glad to not have to cram it in at the last minute, even if present me kind of wants to turn on Netflix instead. It also explains why we use post-it notes to remind us to get an oil change, hide those delicious cookies in the back of the cabinet so we’re less likely to see them, and apparently, it’s why you should play the New York Lottery (though the jury is still out on that last one).

There are lots of things we do to help our future selves. When we do things like forgoing a new pair of shoes to save money for a future vacation, some people would say we’re acting out of a sense of connectedness between our present and future selves. We feel connected to the person we’ll be later, so we do something for that future person (Parfit, 1984). If we don’t feel connected to our future self, however, we might do things in the present that actually work against this future person. One study connected the similarity we feel to our future self with dishonest behaviors (van Gelder et al., 2013). In one experiment, half of the participants wrote letters to themselves three years into the future, while the other half wrote letters to themselves 20 years in the future. Then, they were given hypothetical scenarios like: “You need a new computer but are short on cash. A fellow student tells you about an acquaintance of his who sells laptops that ‘fell off a truck.’ The laptops meet your requirement and are attractively priced. How likely is it that you would buy one of these laptops?” Overall, those who wrote to their distant (20 years) future selves made fewer “delinquent” choices, like buying the potentially-stolen laptop, than those who wrote to their near future selves. This seems to imply that after people wrote to their distant future selves, they felt more connected to those people and more likely to make moral decisions that might affect their future selves. In a follow-up, some participants were shown age-progressed renderings of themselves (40 years into the future) and others saw versions of their present selves. They again had an opportunity to exhibit dishonest behavior, this time in the form of a nearly-impossible quiz. If they answered at least 7 of the 8 questions correctly, they could help themselves to the money attached to the quiz; if not, they were supposed to leave it. No one was watching them take the quiz, so it was their choice whether they wanted to be honest about their score. If people were being honest, few or none should have taken the money because the quiz was so hard. However, as predicted, those who had faced their future selves were less likely to claim the cash, suggesting that a sense of continuity between the present and future self might encourage us to be honest and do things to help our future reputation.

Other work has shown that the amount people choose to save for the future depends on how similar they feel they are today to the person who will be reaping the benefits down the line. To explore this possibility, researchers have examined individual differences in temporal discounting – the tendency to see a future reward as less valuable than a reward today, or to prefer immediate gratification over delayed, even if the delayed reward is larger than the immediate one. In one study, participants rated the similarity between their current and future selves (at different time periods) on a scale from 0 (completely different) to 100 (exactly the same) (Bartels & Rips, 2010). They were encouraged to think of “the characteristics that make you who you are – your personality, temperament, likes and dislikes, beliefs, values, ambitions, goals, ideals.” After rating the similarity between their current and future selves, participants were given a series of questions such as: “I would be indifferent between $100 tomorrow and ______ in 20 years.” (The future time periods ranged from 1 to 40 years). If someone didn’t discount future rewards at all, they should indicate that $100 in 20 years is as valuable to them as $100 tomorrow (but this would be a very atypical view). The more people discount future rewards (or the more impatience they have), the larger the sum of money they’ll require in order to be indifferent between the immediate and future rewards. The researchers found that when a person reported a drop-off in the similarity they felt to their future self at a given time period, they tended to discount the future reward more for that same time period. For example, if they thought they were pretty similar today to their self in 5 years but not very similar to their self in 10 years, they also showed a marked decrease in patience for a reward they would receive in 10 years compared to one they would receive in 5.

From an outsider’s point of view, many of the decisions we make seem to suggest that we think about our future self as a different person than the one we are today. This same explanation has also been supported by fMRI evidence. To measure the patterns in brain activity associated with thinking about these different selves, participants thought about the applicability of different traits to their current self, future self, a current other, and a future other while in an fMRI scanner. (Ersner-Hershfield et al., 2009). First, they found that thinking about oneself resulted in a greater metabolic response, which is often considered an indicator of brain activity, in two main brain areas: the medial prefrontal cortex (often associated with thinking about others) and the rostral anterior cingulate (involved in a variety of rational functions like decision-making and empathy), both of which replicated previous work (Northoff et al., 2006). In addition, they found a similar increase in activity in the same areas when people thought about their current selves as opposed to their future selves. Not surprisingly there were also individual differences. For some people, there was almost no overlap in the activity arising from thinking about the present and future self; for others, there was a lot. A week after the scanner part of the experiment, the same participants completed temporal discounting tasks (similar to those used by Bartels & Rips that measured patience for rewards at different time periods), and the amount of overlap in activation a person showed when thinking about their current and future selves predicted their impatience toward future rewards. The more someone’s brain differentiated between their current and future self, the more that person discounted the future and preferred the immediate benefit.

Even though it may seem that our future selves are doomed, research has uncovered a few ways we can combat our natural tendencies. One group of researchers explored the effects of actually seeing our future self through virtual reality (Hershfield et al., 2011). One group of participants looked into the virtual mirror to see a version of themselves at 70 years old, and the other group saw a digital version of their current selves.

Here's an example of the first author's face normally, digitized, and age-progressed

Here’s an example of the first author’s face normally, digitized, and age-progressed

After encountering their digital self, participants were given an imaginary scenario that they had just received $1,000. They had to allocate it among buying something nice for someone special, investing in a retirement account, planning a fun and extravagant occasion, and putting it into a checking account. People who had seen their 70-year old selves allocated more than double the amount of money to a retirement account than people who saw digital versions of their current selves. The authors suggested that interacting with a future self evoked empathy for the future self and encouraged people to give more weight to long-term saving.

A slightly simpler approach to encouraging people to save for their future self might be simply framing the decision as their responsibility to that future self. A group of researchers at Stanford tried this approach with actual employees at the university (Bryan & Hershfield, 2011). Half of the participants were urged to think about their future self as dependent on the decision they made about how much to save for retirement. The other half were given a more standard framing of the decision, which encouraged them to think about their long-term interest. They found that people who had indicated feeling closest to their future selves at the outset saved more money if they had then read the appeal to think about their future selves than if they had read about the decision in terms of their long-term interest. However, participants who did not report feeling connected to their future selves at the onset of the study were not affected by the future self framing of the decision.

Despite the potential negative consequences of seeing your future self as a different person from your current one, treating them as exactly the same – or privileging your future self over the present one – could also be pretty detrimental. You might miss out on that pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish food, never learn what it feels like to have just a little too much to drink, or end up spending most of your waking hours in a university lab – Oh wait…



Bartels, D.N. & Rips, L.J. (2010). Psychological connectedness and intertemporal choice. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139(1), 49-69.

Bryan, C.J. & Hershfield, H.E. (2011). You owe it to yourself: Boosting retirement saving with a responsibility-based appeal. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(3), 429.

Ersner-Hershfield, H., Garton, M.T., Ballard, K., Samanez-Larkin, G.R. & Knutson, B. (2009). Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow: Individual differences in future self-continuity account for saving. Judgm Decis Mak., 4(4), 280-286.

Hershfield, H.E., Goldstein, D.G., Sharpe, W.F., Foxe, J., Yeykelis, L., Carstensen, L.L., & Bailensen, J.L. (2011). Increasing saving behavior through age-progressed renderings of the future self. Journal of Marketing Research, 48, S23-S37.

Northoff, G., Heinzel, A., de Greck, M., Bermpohl, F., Dobrowolny, H., & Panksepp, J. (2006). Self-referential processing in our brain – A meta-analysis of imaging studies on the self. Neuroimage, 31(1), 440-457.

Parfit, D. (1984) Reasons and Persons, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

van Gelder, J., Hershfield, H., & Nordgren, L. (2013). Vividness of the future self predicts delinquency. Psychological Science, 24(6), 974-980.