Mon, 2 October 2023
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.”