Hal Hershfield on How We Perceive Our Future Selves
On his institutional web homepage at the University of California-Los Angeles’s Anderson School of Management, psychologist Hal Hershfield posts one statement in big italic type: “My research asks, ‘How can we help move people from who they are now to who they’ll be in the future in a way that maximizes well-being?”
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Hershfield and interviewer Dave Edmonds discuss what that means in practice, whether in our finances or our families, and how humans can make better decisions. Hershfield’s new book, Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today, offers a popular synthesis of these same questions.
Much of his research centers on this key observation: “humans have this unique ability to engage in what we call ‘mental time travel,’ the ability to project ourselves ahead and look back on the past and even project ourselves ahead and look back on the past while we’re doing so. But despite this ability to engage in mental time travel, we don’t always do it in a way that affords us the types of benefits that it could.”
Those benefits might include better health from future-looking medical decisions, better wealth thanks to future-looking spending and savings decisions, or greater contentment based on placing current events in a future-looking context. Which begs the question – when is the future?
“The people who think the future starts sooner,” Hershfield explains, “are the ones who are more likely to do things for that future, which in some ways makes sense. It’s closer, it’s a little more vivid. There’s a sort of a clean break between now and it. That said, it is a pretty abstract question. And I think what you’re asking about what counts in five years, 10 years, 20 years? That’s a deeper question that also needs to be examined.”
Regardless of when someone thinks the future kicks off, people remain acutely aware that time is passing even if for many their actions belie that. Proof of this comes from studies of how individual react when made acutely aware of the advance of time, Hershfield notes. “People place special value on these milestone birthdays and almost use them as an excuse to perform sort of a meaningfulness audit. of their lives, … This is a common finding, we’ve actually found this in our research, that people are more likely to do these sorts of meaning-making activities as they confront these big milestones. But it’s also to some degree represents a break between who you are now and some future person who you will become.”
Hershfield concludes the interview noting how his research has changed him, using the example of how he now makes time when he might be doing professional work to spend with his family. “I want my future self to look back and say, ‘You were there. You were present. You saw those things,’ and not have looked up and said, ‘Shoot, I missed out on that.’ I would say that’s the main way that I’ve really started to shift my thinking from this work.”
To download an MP3 of this podcast, right-click HERE and save. The transcript of the conversation appears below.
For a complete listing of past Social Science Bites podcasts, click HERE. You can follow Bites on Twitter @socialscibites and David Edmonds @DavidEdmonds100.
Dave Edmonds: Do you think about what your life will be like in five, 10, 20 years? Are you good at imagining your future? Hal Hershfield is a psychologist at UCLA Anderson School of Management and has a very specific research interest. He investigates how people perceive the passage of time, how they view their future selves, and what impact this has on their decisions. Hal Hershfield, welcome to Social Science Bites.
Hal Hershfield: Thanks so much, Dave. I’ve been looking forward to this.
Edmonds: So, an unusual subject today we’re talking about time, in particular, how humans perceive themselves as changing through time, and how this shapes their decisions. So we’ll explain more about that in a moment. But perhaps you could sketch out very generally the issue at stake here, because I guess one thing that makes humans distinct as a species, is that we have a quite finely grained ability to think about both the past and the future.
Hershfield: Yeah, that’s right. So, I would say if I can sort of sketch it out briefly, humans have this unique ability to engage in what we call “mental time travel,” the ability to project ourselves ahead and look back on the past and even project ourselves ahead and look back on the past while we’re doing so. But despite this ability to engage in mental time travel, we don’t always do it in a way that affords us the types of benefits that it could. And so, a lot of my research focuses on when we make, quote unquote, mistakes with our decisions, projecting ourselves ahead in time.
Edmonds: OK, when I was 20, I don’t think I could imagine myself very clearly being my current age. And I find it tricky to imagine what I’ll be like, at night, if I survive that long, inshallah, how much do people vary in their ability to imagine their future selves?
Hershfield: Right. So there’s a good degree of variability here. Some people can really clearly imagine the person that they’ll be in five years, 10 years’ time. Some people have a very difficult time with it, vividness in the mind’s eye tends to be something that’s has a lot of individual differences. That being said, the further out we go in time, essentially everybody starts showing a weakened ability to do this, because it’s harder and harder, and there’s more uncertainty, and so on and so on.
Edmonds: So this variability, how have you established that? Have you established that some people are good at it, and some people are bad at it?
Hershfield: Right? So there are a variety of different questionnaires. Look, I’m a psychologist. So I deploy these questionnaires, we ask people about how much they feel a sense of connection with their future selves, which is a little different than sort of vividness. And we’ve used sort of pictures to do this. We show people circles that go from gradually not overlapping to almost all the way overlapping. They’re called Euler circles. That’s one way to measure how much you feel connected or similar or related to your future self. But you can also ask people, ‘How vivid does the image of your future self seem?’ you know, and this is one-to-seven scale and you continue to seven is a perfectly clear image, no problem at all. One is vague and abstract, and I can’t even conjure it up. That’s mainly the way we do it.
Edmonds: Is there any new scientific research or physiological research on this? You have conducted experiments with MRI scanners, for example?
Hershfield: Yes, to some degree. One of the studies that I’ve done, we’ve put people into MRI scanners, just as you said, and we’ve asked them to make judgments about themselves now and themselves in the future, as well as another person now and another person in the future. Now, what we find there is that the neural activity pattern that comes about when people think of their future selves, looks a lot like the neural activity pattern that comes about when people think about another person. Now that’s not quite the same as looking at vividness, right? This is just saying, the way we sort of conceptualize the future self in the mind’s eye in our brain is on par with the way that we conceptualize another person, the vividness question, though, that’s a deeper one that we haven’t yet explored, but totally worth doing.
Edmonds: Talk me through some of the implications of these findings. Suppose I’m one of those people who thinks that the person who will exist in 25 years will be very close to me. How will my behavior differ from a person who imagines their future self as someone entirely alien to them?
Hershfield: Right. So, one way to think about this, Dave, is to consider how would you treat somebody today, somebody else today who you are very close to, versus somebody who is relatively foreign, alien to you. My bet is that someone very close to you would engender your sympathy and compassion and your time and your sacrifices. But somebody who you don’t know, I mean, you might know they exist, but you’re not close to them at all, they’re not going to make you do things for them. Like, you’re not going to necessarily say, I’ll give up my weekend to help you out stranger. Now apply that to our future selves. If your future self is someone with whom you share a close connection, you feel a sense of sort of relatedness to them and overlap, if you will. What the research suggests is that you’ll be more likely to do things for their benefit, you know, whether that’s eating healthier, exercising, saving money, etc. But also you may be considering their interests and their time and whatnot, compared to if you feel no sense of overlap, if your future self almost feels, I love the way that you put it alien to you.
Edmonds: Is this something you’ve tested in the laboratory? Or does it have real world effects?
Hershfield: Yes, so both right, so we have examined people’s sense of connection to their future selves in the sort of, you know, very sterile lab settings, where we ask the questions very directly, and measure things like their decisions on tasks where they have to choose between a small amount of money now and a large amount of money later. But in other research, we’ve worked with large surveys of adults sort of across the United States, finding that the people who are more connected, they have higher financial well-being they save more, they experience more life satisfaction, they have higher self-reported health and so on. So don’t think this is just sort of specific to kind of lab settings, but it really does extend beyond and I should say, those relationships are still there, even when you take into account things like age, and education, and income and gender are the things that you think might also matter here, the third variables, if you will.
Edmonds: So that’s really fascinating. Lots of governments are worried about people not saving enough, right, for their future. And they think that people weren’t able to survive on the state pension. And they want to encourage us to save more. So you’ve spotted this link? Are there interventions that work other ways of getting people to care more about their future selves?
Hershfield: Sure. So the economist would say, ‘Change the system. Make people automatically enrolled in saving.’ The psychologist in me would say, ‘Well, if you want an intervention to get people to care more about their future self, one way to determine what to do is to think about what techniques might we use to get you to care more about someone else in your life?’ Charities do this very well, they don’t give you a list of statistics. What they do is tell you a story, and they make a given recipient, emotional, right, and they make them vivid. And so one thing that we can do to try to get people to take better care of their future selves, is to make those future selves more provocative, more vivid, more emotional, right?
So I mean, we can literally show you what you’ll look like, you know, an age progressive version of yourself. And there’s some caveats there. How do you do that? The joke is I just look in the mirror nowadays, but there’s great technology to do this. Look, in some ways, the FBI, and other sorts of police agencies have been doing age progression for decades. Now, when I started working on this, we had to hire graphic artists. Now anybody can do this, you know, if you download a 99 cent app, you can do this on face app, or Snapchat or Tik Tok, and the process is quite good. It basically just mimics the aging process on your face. Now, that’s the type of thing that can work in certain situations where I am being shown, you know, an aged image and also given the opportunity to save. If I were to just put up an aged image of you, I wouldn’t expect that next week, you would finally sit down and take care of your pension your your savings, because, well, there’s too much time in between. But the idea here is to make that future self more vivid, because a vivid self is emotional, and emotions are the types of things that can drive that sense of closeness, and that sort of desire to take action.
Edmonds: So, you can show people an elderly version of themselves, then present them immediately with some kind of decision process. And you’ll discover that they’re more likely to take decisions that benefit that elderly person.
Hershfield: That’s right. So for instance, we just ran a study, or rather we just published a study, where these were the 50,000 customers of a bank in Mexico, half of them received this sort of standard message, it’s important to save half of them also got that message and the opportunity to see you know, their age selfie, I think we call it and those who did, were 16 percent more likely to make a contribution to their personal pension. Now you know, I should emphasize these are not magic bullets. There’s so many different factors that impact the likelihood deceive, or the likelihood to exercise the likelihood to do anything that represents taking care of our future selves. This is just one intervention that we can deploy.
Edmonds: But also, although that produces a kind of brilliant result, that’s not really a practical solution, is it? Because we can’t do that to everyone, the government can’t go around showing? Or maybe it can an aging selfie, to everybody who is investing in the private pension?
Hershfield: Well, it’s funny that you say that there’s two things. So on the one hand, I agree with you, I don’t think it’s the best solution at scale. On the other hand, we did it with 50,000 customers, and it’s very easy. A lot of these people already have a mobile phone, they upload a photo and then press a button and it comes back to them like that. Now, could a government project that to you? Well, they have your driver’s license photo, they have your passport photo, it’s not crazy. I’m setting aside the ethical issue and the privacy issues. It’s not crazy to think that they could.
That said, there’s other strategies that we could use, you know, so we know psychologically, that when people make these quote, unquote, trade offs between now and later, part of the calculus is that there’s a sacrifice made right now, for a benefit later. That’s a sort of asymmetry. And so one thing we can do is to try to make that sacrifice right now feel easier to undertake, just in terms of saving, and we can talk about this in other spaces, too.
In one of my recent studies, we just reframed saving. We said to some people, ‘Do you want to save $150 a month?’ and to other people, we said, ‘Do you want to save $5 a day?’ which feels almost overly simplistic, it’s the same amount of money — $5 a day, feels easier. There’s lots of things in that category that we spend $5 in a day, there’s not as many that we spend $150 on a month, and we had four times as many people sign up for a savings account, right? So one way to think about this is how can we make that sacrifice feel easier to make? Now,
Edmonds: I was gonna ask you a related question about that, because we’ve been talking about the future as though the concept of what counts as the future is uncontentious. But if you ask me, ‘Dave, are you planning for the future?’ I’ll assume that you mean, am I planning for events? I don’t know. Ten years from now? No? Am I planning what to do at the weekend? Yeah. Do people vary about what they count as the future? And does this make any difference to their behavior?
Hershfield: Oh, yeah. It’s a fascinating question. And we can obviously, very quickly get into kind of heady territory, what counts of the future and what doesn’t actually have some research with my collaborator, Sam Maglio, where we ask people these sort of abstract questions of when do you think the future starts? When do you think the present ends? This is a little different than what you’re asking, which is, you know, do I think five years is the future? Or is that the present? And there is some variability there that that’s not necessarily what we ask. But the thing that we do find if I can make it sort of concise and concrete is that the people who think that the future starts sooner? Again, this is a very abstract, but if we just asked you without any events in mind, but just does the future, where does it start? You know, draw it out on a line? Is it right now? Is it way in the future?
The people who think the future starts sooner are the ones who are more likely to do things for that future, which in some ways makes sense. It’s closer, it’s a little more vivid. There’s a sort of a clean break between now and it. That said, it is a pretty abstract question. And I think what you’re asking about what counts in five years, 10 years, 20 years? That’s a deeper question that also needs to be examined.
Edmonds: Right. Another thing that I think about when I think about my life is like, think about my life, in sort of arbitrary milestone, I’ve got a horrible milestone coming up next year. And a few decades ago, I would have thought that milestone meant I was entering old age. Now. I think it’s the beginning of middle age. But is that relevant to these issues? Do people think in terms of milestones? And is that relevant for how they plan?
Hershfield: So, you’re about to turn 40? I assume, correct? Well, you’re absolutely right, there is something arbitrary about what we call milestone birthdays, the day you wake up and turn 40 or 50, or 60, or whatever it is, is not really any different from the prior day when you were in an earlier decade. But we’re on a base 10 system, we assign a lot of value to these milestone birthdays. And one of the things that my colleagues and I have found out (Adam Alter namely) is that people place special value on these milestone birthdays and almost use them as an excuse to perform sort of a meaningfulness audit. of their lives, it’s a time to sort of say, have I been doing what I’ve wanted to do? What more do I want to accomplish, we sort of naturally do this, if you’ve ever heard of somebody saying, you know,’ I’m gonna run the marathon’ or the triathlon or something insane like that, you know, I’m about to turn 40, 50, whatever, who wants to join me. This is a common finding, we’ve actually found this in our research, that people are more likely to do these sorts of meaning making activities as they confront these big milestones. But it’s also to some degree represents a break between who you are now and some future person who you will become.
Edmonds: Is that a tool that politicians and policymakers can also manipulate? Obviously, your pension kicks in at a certain time, and you’re in this country, your free bus pass or your free, Underground pass kicks in at a certain age. But can policymakers manipulate these psychological milestones?
Hershfield: I’ll rephrase that to ‘use them to help citizens,’ but …
Edmonds: I don’t mean manipulate in a bad way. I mean, in a way that’s for benefit …
Hershfield: I know, I know. I know. In fact, research that’s led by Hengchen Dai, who’s a professor at UCLA as well, has found that if you ask people to make an you know, an increased contribution to their retirement accounts, you have better luck doing so in advance of a birthday, these represent fresh starts. And I don’t know that she and her colleagues have done this specifically for the sort of big milestone birthdays. But presumably, that would also be a good time, if you’re trying to get someone to make a change, whether it’s to sign up for a will or extra health insurance, or whatever it may be, these can be good times to do it, because it feels like a natural time to sort of take stock of our lives, and do the changes that we need to in order to sort of live more to the ideal we’ve set for ourselves, if you will.
Edmonds: Right. I’ve been asking you about the future because we live our lives in a forward direction. Is there anything to be said about the past? And how we view our past selves? And I don’t know that might be linked to shame or guilt about past actions? Have you done any work on that? Any research on that?
Hershfield: Well, it’s a such an interesting question. I do have a former student Elicia John, who I’ve been working with, to look at how people conceptualize their past selves, specifically in terms of maintaining a goal. So she’s really interested in weight loss maintenance, it turns out, you know, a lot of people can lose weight, but then keeping the weight off is the most difficult part of the process. Now, one of the things that she’s found is that the way that we think of our past self matters for our likelihood to maintain the weight. And the basic idea is that we need to keep that past self vivid in mind, right? But not feel too emotionally close to them, we want to almost feel distant from them. Like, that’s not me. Now. That’s the earlier me, who snapped at night and ate too many donuts or whatever, whatever the thing is. But that is one way to look at it. Now you had asked about shame and guilt, I am curious whether or not having a closer relationship with my past self, might actually make it easier for me to deal with regrets, you know, if I can sort of step into the shoes of the person I once was, maybe I’ll have a better appreciation for the context of my decisions and what I was feeling and thinking and not be so hard on me myself.
Edmonds: That’s interesting because I would have thought the opposite. I would have thought the more distant you are from your past self, the easier it would be to apologize or do whatever was required.
Hershfield: Yeah, well, it’s interesting. I mean, this sets it up to be like a brilliant experimental investigation, right? Maybe it depends on what we’re focusing on here. Because if it’s a matter of being more compassionate with myself, well, maybe a sense of closeness matters. If it’s a matter of apologizing to others, or making right our past wrongs, maybe I do want to really separate from that person and say, That’s not me. That’s a totally different person.
Edmonds: Do that study!
Hershfield: Absolutely. I’ll keep you posted.
Edmonds: Now, you’re very unusual in that your work has been influenced principally not by another psychologist, but by a philosopher. And as it happens, a philosopher who taught me and whose biography I’ve written and whom I’m very interested in. Tell us why Derek Parfit was such an inspiration for you.
Hershfield: So, to some extent, on the psychology side, I know I’m unique in being influenced by philosophers, but then when you look at Parfit’s work, and how many other people he’s influenced, all of a sudden, I’m not so unique. He, I think more than anyone, has done such great work, trying to think about the problems with identity, what makes us you know, quote, unquote, the same over time, what makes us connected or not connected to our future selves and the concept that maybe we aren’t one sort of single self but rather sort of a collection of selves, and maybe the thing that unites those selves is strands of continuity. That idea — and I’m wildly oversimplifying this here, of course — but the basic notion behind this idea there made it so easy for me to try to figure out why people have such a hard time making decisions today that benefit themselves in the future. And once you start considering the idea of different selves over time, and that, you know, what may matter is this sort of sense of continuity, and we’ve run with that idea and like to find continuity and some of the similar ways that he has and also in different ways. But that idea has been enormously helpful in trying to understand the decisions that people make, and then also how to help them make, quote, unquote, better ones. And by that I mean, ones that they say that they want to make, but have a difficult time doing.
Edmonds: Because his central, I guess, insight into personal identity is that there’s no essence of us. We’re constantly evolving. I’m interested how you were exposed to Parfit, presumably not in a psychology class.
Hershfield: Let’s see, I think the original exposure I had to him was first with a question of why aren’t Americans saving at a rate that they quote unquote, should be saving for, and then trying to dig into the concept of, you know, long term decision making, and then I came across work by Shane Frederick, who’s also a business school professor, also a psychologist at Yale, who works very closely with George Lowenstein, an economist at Carnegie Mellon. And in their paper, this is now 20 years old, they cite Parfitt. They use it as a building block for understanding what psychologists and economists called temporal discounting the idea that we downplay the value of future rewards. It was like the old-school version of finding a YouTube video and then going down a YouTube rabbit hole. This was like finding a philosophy article and then going down the philosophy rabbit hole of personal identity.
Edmonds: I did not know that. George Levenstein is another victim of Social Science Bites, he’s a previous interviewee. So let me ask you one final question has the research that you’ve undertaken, has it shifted your approach either to your future self or to your past self?
Hershfield: You know, if anything, I think it’s probably shifted my approach to my present self. And what I mean by that is, I probably have been someone who has been almost overly future-concerned. And when I talk about relationships between current and future selves, it doesn’t mean that the current self should always sacrifice for the future self. What it means is that there should be a relationship there.
When I really got deep into this research, one of the things that I examined myself was whether or not I was doing enough to, I’ll say, to live for today or be present. This sounds kind of like buzzwords, but what that’s meant for me is I’ve tried to loosen up a little bit in how I spend my time. And it’s so easy to say, ‘I really need to be protective of my time and be working hard. And I can’t make it to this thing with friends or my kids or whatever.’ And this particular quarter, I’m leaving work a little early on Tuesdays and Wednesdays so I can take my son to his T-ball class, and then also a ballet class, and I’m shifting off with my wife, too, of course. But there’s a time in my life when I would have said, ‘We’ve got to figure this out otherwise, because I work during the day. And that’s when I need to be doing my work.’ And I realized, well, maybe I could also do some work at night and make it to these things because my kid is not going to be a kid for that long. And I want to look back, I want my future self to look back and say, ‘You were there. You were present. You saw those things,’ and not have looked up and said, ‘Shoot, I missed out on that.’ I would say that’s the main way that I’ve really started to shift my thinking from this work.
Edmonds: I’m pleased you’ve been able to be very present for this interview. Hal Hershfield Thanks very much indeed.
Hershfield: Dave, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.