Some People See Their Future-Selves as Strangers

Some people see their future-selves as strangers, and thus don’t plan ahead for their own old age

You know those friends you had in high school, the ones who were convinced they weren’t going to make it past 30? They smoked too much, ate junk food three meals a day, and just generally went out of their way to take as little care of themselves as possible? It turns out that the two traits may be related, says Cass Sunstein in an opinion piece for Bloomberg.

Some people, when thinking about their future selves, do not actually picture an older version of themselves. Rather, they picture a stranger. This failure to identify with your future-self, he says, lines up with the tendencies towards short-term now-ness, as opposed to long-term planning.

In research lead by Jason Mitchell, says Sunstein, scientists asked people how much they, or a stranger, “would enjoy engaging in some activity (such as watching a sunrise) in the next day or in a year.” A brain scanner was used to watch the level of activity in one region of the brain—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—a zone that is important for perceptions of pleasure, decision making and the conception of self.

Some people’s brains lit up when thinking about their fun activity both now and in the future. For others, the potential sunrise-watching tomorrow triggered the brain region associated with themselves, while the sunrise-watching next year didn’t. The scientists took this to mean that for the far-future sunrise, the study participants were picturing this happening to someone else.

The same people who saw their future-selves as themselves were also more likely to take steps to protect or look after their futures than those who saw their future-selves as strangers. If you want a bit of a boost in seeing how you’ll look in the future, why not try out the University of St. Andrews’ “face of the future” site?

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