Face your future

July 21, 2016

Can you picture yourself 20, 30 or 40 years from now? If so, do you think of that future version of yourself as "me"?

According to researchers from Stanford University the answer is probably not. Researchers associated with the Stanford Centre on Longevity have established that when people think about their future selves, the neural patterns activated in their brains are the same as when they think about a stranger.

Rationally, we understand we're going to age, that our interests, habits, experience, lifestyle and expectations will change over time; that the face looking back at us from some future mirror will be different, older.

But emotionally, we simply don't identify with our future selves.

In their report "Knowing your future you" researchers Steve Vernon of the Stanford Centre and Fergal McGuinness, global defined contributions leader at Mercer say this emotional disconnect is part of what makes saving so hard. The report - one in a series of articles developed in a partnership between Mercer and Stanford - explores the notion of "hyperbolic discounting", whereby people place more value on spending money today than deferring spending into the future. "For most people, buying stuff today provides a much bigger psychological boost than saving money for the future," they report.

"Few find it easy to imagine or establish an emotional connection with their future selves."

But when participants in the study were shown digitally aged photographs of themselves or given the opportunity to interact with 3D avatars of their older selves, they were willing to put considerably more into their retirement savings.

Their change in attitude can be linked directly to an emotional connection with their future selves.

Behavioural economist Daniel Goldstein spoke about the "unequal battle" between present and future selves in a TED Talk back in 2011. Goldstein says the future self would like the present self to save as much as possible as early as possible. But the present self is in the driver's seat and it doesn't want to save at all; it wants to consume.

"Let's face it, the present self is present. It's in control. It's in power right now. It has these strong, heroic arms that can lift doughnuts into your mouth," Goldstein says. "The future self is not even around. It's off in the future. It's weak. It doesn't even have a lawyer present.

"There is nobody to stick up for the future self and so the present self can trounce all over its dreams."

There are plenty of things you can do to reward your future self, including making extra contributions to your KiwiSaver or making an active investment choice.

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