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Why We Procrastinate

We think of our future selves as strangers.

The British philosopher Derek Parfit espoused a severely reductionist view of personal identity in his seminal book, Reasons and Persons: It does not exist, at least not in the way we usually consider it. We humans, Parfit argued, are not a consistent identity moving through time, but a chain of successive selves, each tangentially linked to, and yet distinct from, the previous and subsequent ones. The boy who begins to smoke despite knowing that he may suffer from the habit decades later should not be judged harshly: “This boy does not identify with his future self,” Parfit wrote. “His attitude towards this future self is in some ways like his attitude to other people.”

Parfit’s view was controversial even among philosophers. But psychologists are beginning to understand that it may accurately describe our attitudes towards our own decision-making: It turns out that we see our future selves as strangers. Though we will inevitably share their fates, the people we will become in a decade, quarter century, or more, are unknown to us. This impedes our ability to make good choices on their—which of course is our own—behalf. That bright, shiny New Year’s resolution? If you feel perfectly justified in breaking it, it may be because it feels like it was a promise someone else made.

“It’s kind of a weird notion,” says Hal Hershfield, an assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “On a psychological and emotional level we really consider that future self as if it’s another person.”

Using fMRI, Hershfield and colleagues studied brain activity changes when people imagine their future and consider their present. They homed in on two areas of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, which are more active when a subject thinks about himself than when he thinks of someone else. They found these same areas were more strongly activated when subjects thought of themselves today, than of themselves in the future. Their future self “felt” like somebody else. In fact, their neural activity when they described themselves in a decade was similar to that when they described Matt Damon or Natalie Portman. And subjects whose brain activity changed the most when they spoke about their future selves were the least likely to favor large long-term financial gains over small immediate ones.

Their future self “felt” like somebody else. In fact, their neural activity when they described themselves in a decade was similar to that when they described Matt Damon or Natalie Portman.

Emily Pronin, a psychologist at Princeton, has come to similar conclusions in her research. In a 2008 study, Pronin and her team told college students that they were taking part in an experiment on disgust that required drinking a concoction made of ketchup and soy sauce. The more they, their future selves, or other students consumed, they were told, the greater the benefit to science. Students who were told they’d have to down the distasteful quaff that day committed to consuming two tablespoons. But those that were committing their future selves (the following semester) or other students to participate agreed to guzzle an average of half a cup. We think of our future selves, says Pronin, like we think of others: in the third person.

The disconnect between our present and time-shifted selves has real implications for how we make decisions. We might choose to procrastinate, and let some other version of our self deal with problems or chores. Or, as in the case of Parfit’s smoking boy, we can focus on that version of our self that derives pleasure, and ignore the one that pays the price.

But if procrastination or irresponsibility can derive from a poor connection to your future self, strengthening this connection may prove to be an effective remedy. This is exactly the tactic that some researchers are taking. Anne Wilson, a psychologist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, has manipulated people’s perception of time by presenting participants with timelines scaled to make an upcoming event, such as a paper due date, seem either very close or far off. “Using a longer timeline makes people feel more connected to their future selves,” says Wilson. That, in turn, spurred students to finish their assignment earlier, saving their end-of-semester self the stress of banging it out at the last minute.

Hershfield has taken a more high-tech approach. Inspired by the use of images to spur charitable donations, he and colleagues took subjects into a virtual reality room and asked them to look into a mirror. The subjects saw either their current self, or a digitally aged image of themselves (see the figure, Digital Old Age). When they exited the room, they were asked how they’d spend $1,000. Those exposed to the aged photo said they’d put twice as much into a retirement account as those who saw themselves unaged.

We think of our future selves, says Pronin, like we think of others: in the third person.

This might be important news for parts of the finance industry. Insurance giant Allianz is funding a pilot project in the midwest in which Hershfield’s team will show state employees their aged faces when they make pension allocations. Merrill Edge, the online discount unit of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, has taken this approach online, with a service called Face Retirement. Each decade-jumping image is accompanied by startling cost-of-living projections and suggestions to invest in your golden years. Hershfield is currently investigating whether morphed images can help people lose weight.

Digital Old Age: A photograph (left) and digitially aged avatar (right) of Professor Hal Hershfield.Hal Hershfield

Of course, the way we treat our future self is not necessarily negative: Since we think of our future self as someone else, our own decision making reflects how we treat other people. Where Parfit’s smoking boy endangers the health of his future self with nary a thought, others might act differently. “The thing is, we make sacrifices for people all the time,” says Hershfield. “In relationships, in marriages.” The silver lining of our dissociation from our future self, then, is that it is another reason to practice being good to others. One of them might be you.


Alisa Opar is the articles editor at Audubon magazine. She often consigns “Future Alisa” to dealing with deadlines and chores.

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