I just celebrated my 33rd birthday this Saturday. It was a familiar birthday scene, being surrounded by close friends at a nice restaurant. It did make me think back to a recent conference I went to, at which Hal Hershfield spoke on the notion of our future selves.
During his talk, Hershfield asked us to take a moment to imagine our birthday a year from now. Most people imagine a scenario similar to mine on Saturday; they are surrounded by close friends & family. Now, do the same thing but think of your birthday 30+ years from now instead. What do you see? Apparently for most people this exercise is a little bit more difficult to imagine (the imagery is less vivid), and importantly: they see the scenario from the third person. This is because in many ways we are disconnected from our future self and see it as “other” rather than “self.”
Hershfield has also researched this from a neurological standpoint. The part of the brain that gets activated when we think about ourselves is different from the part that we use to think about others. Well, when he did brain scans, it turns out that when we think about our future self, it activates the same part as we use for others, not for our self.
OK so who cares, why is this important?
Well, the greater connection we feel toward our future selves, the better actions we take now especially for things that impact the long run (e.g. health, savings). Specifically, Hershfield ran one experiment in which people were shown an either an age-adjusted image of themselves or a current image of themselves in a virtual reality experience. They were then asked what they would do with $1,000 if it were given to them right then. The group that saw the age-adjusted image of themselves allocated twice the amount to a retirement account as the other group! He replicated several versions of this experiment in different contexts with similar results.
The implications of this research are clearly quite powerful, both in terms of direct application (financial advisors, financial software tools) or extended application (health-related activities such as quitting smoking or eating healthier). It’s great that something as simple as a digitally altered image could have such a profound effect. If you want to try it, here is a website that will do it for you.
In the spirit of truly seeing my future self as myself, I decided to make a small twist to this. What if I could look in a mirror (not in a virtual reality scenario, as with Hershfield’s research), but a real mirror? I popped on craigslist to hire a makeup artist, and found makeup student Marjorie Perry. My photographer friend Paula Majid came over to shoot the process.
Here are the results:
Myself today (33) vs. with aging makeup (63+)
I’m not going to lie; I was rather shocked to see the result. There was something disconcerting about looking into the mirror and seeing an image so different from the one I usually see. I am really glad to have done it though, as there could be no doubt that the reflection I saw was definitely me.
Beyond this little exercise, there is one thing that is bugging me about this research about our future selves. Most of us are disconnected with our future selves. We see this future self as someone different from our current self. Hershfield clearly demonstrated this in his research. At the same time, other research has shown that we experience an “end of history illusion,” meaning that at any given point in time, we believe that we have finally become the person we will be for the rest of our lives. Gilbert, Jordi, Quoidbach, and Wilson discovered that even though people acknowledged how much they changed in the last decade, they don’t believe they will continue to do so. At 33, I will be prone to acknowledge that I’ve changed a lot since 23, but will think that I won’t change very much between now and 43 (although the research shows that I actually will).
So combining these two ideas is what has me wondering, if we think we are our final selves right now (at whatever age we are), how can the disconnect between our current self and our future self be so great? In other words, if I think that my personality and tastes will be the same (or similar) as when I am 63, why would I see my 63-year-old self as “other”? What do you think?
Originally published at behaviorly.com on September 30, 2014.