We had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Hal Hershfield this week. Hal is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. He teaches and researches the psychology behind decision-making. He’s a buddy of mine from graduate school, has a great sense of humor and worth taking some time to meet.
Why are people impatient overtime and what are the psychological reasons for that, and how can we get them and encourage them to be more patient. This plays out in a variety of ways. Not only looking at how we can get people to save more, but also looking at cases in which people might be afraid to take on healthy debt – to invest in a loan that could help them down the line, but seems painful to do now. The broad theme is decisions where we have to take some action today for a delayed reward.
One psychological mechanism that I look at: the sense of emotional connection people have to their future selves. We often think of the future self as a different person, but what varies is whether you feel you have a strong emotional bond with that person vs. a stranger, like a new coworker who you don’t necessarily identify with. We look at ways to increase that sense of emotional connection between who people are now and who they will end up being.
And how do you do that?
We look at a variety of interventions. In one, we show them images of their future selves, age-progressed images to simulate the aging process getting them to recognize that they will one day be their future self who they are ultimately accountable for.
We also get people to write a letter to their future selves, to get them to have a conversation with that distant self.
Other times, we have them write a day in the life of their future self. What would it be like to be like to live in their future self’s shoes.
Taking perspective of their future selves. This is the gist of the intervention. Broadly speaking, they’re all kind of related to getting people to feel closer and more bonded to other people – especially since we are treating the future self as a different person.
Getting a glimpse of emotions we might feel in the future so we can better plan our lives now to prepare for our future?
I never thought I would want or need life insurance, but since we had our baby, it’s been more pressing. Are things like indexed universal life insurance, which allows people to pay into something to get life insurance and get retirement later on, what do you think the questions are when people make decisions like that? How can interventions help people make such decisions that will be important for their future?
Reasons why people might buy these things have nothing to do with connections to future selves, but rather that insurance is an incredibly confusing industry. Part of the problem does come from the idea that in order to make these decisions, we have to make some sacrifice today for some uncertain benefit. Like car insurance, if you continue paying for it and never get in an accident it can feel as though nothing came of it. We don’t think like that – you think because you drive every day, you see accidents every day, you can see the tangible benefit of having insurance. Insurance feels like the safety net that you need.
When it comes to life insurance, it’s difficult because the things that are protecting them are not as vivid. We don’t want to think about it because it is negative – death. Once they have a kid, people start to think about these things. Now you have someone dependent upon you. From a psychological perspective, this is very fascinating because the question is are you doing this to protect your loved ones or do you have a more collective sense of self that is going to propel you to take action to protect everyone involved? Having a kid certainly drives more of a connection between who you are now and who you’ll be down the line because it forces you to have a much longer time horizon. When will they go to college, when will they get married, and what that might look like if you’re not there.
What about health behaviors? How would you use the concept of future selves for older people to get them to be healthy? Is it still possible?
I wonder if there is a better motivator there. I think this ties back to the discussion around insurance. It depends on the motivation. When you’re younger, eating healthy now means you will be in better shape when you retire and you can enjoy your life. When you are in your sixties or seventies, the issue is less about future life than quality of life now.
I overheard two older men at the gym yesterday. They were questioning the point of working out, asking whether it would make them live longer or better or if they were just feeling pain now and for no reason. There is this perception that if you only have, say, 10 years left, why waste an hour each day doing something unpleasant when you could be spending time with your family or doing something you do enjoy. What’s the point? It may be rational in a way, but the reality is that we know there’s so much research supporting the benefits of exercise throughout the lifespan.
A more powerful motivator at that stage of life would be that exercising now will allow you to enjoy time with your children and grandchildren. My guess is that this would be a stronger, more salient aspect than just the self and self-interest. This would be a fascinating topic for future research – how to motivate someone at that stage of their life.
You were always good at picking up beautiful women. How could one apply the concept of future self towards dating?
Classic Sean question. I can safely say it’s one I never thought about before. All I can say is that bringing a picture of your future self to the bar is probably not the best idea.
Any final words of advice on how to apply this type of work towards improving your life?
One word: balance.
People have been simultaneously bombarded with this idea of “living in the moment” and “being present” and at the same time, being told to “plan for your future” and “work hard today so you can enjoy your life in X years!”. This stresses people out and makes them want to give up. My advice is that you really need to strike a balance between the two: allow your future self to lead a happier life, but don’t go overboard in sacrificing your current self’s happiness.
An extreme case would be someone who works all the time, rarely takes a vacation and gets to age 70. Now they have enough money to travel and live the way they wanted to live, but they’re tired and have, in a way, essentially robbed themselves of memories. Most people are not so future-oriented, but it does bring up an important conversation. If these intertemporal decisions represent clashes between current and future selves, it’s about striking the balance between the two so you have an optimal distribution of things you’ve done that have made you happy over time.