Philosophy:Future self

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The psychological research on the future self examines the processes and consequences associated with thinking about oneself in the future. People think about their future selves similarly to how they think about other people.[1][2][3][4] The extent to which people feel psychologically connected (e.g., similarity, closeness) to their future self influences how well they treat their future self.[5] When people feel connected to their future self, they are more likely to save for retirement, make healthy decisions, and avoid ethical transgressions.[6] Interventions that increase feelings of connectedness with future selves can improve future-oriented decision making across these domains.[7]

Philosophical foundations

Derek Parfit influenced the psychological research on the future self.

Psychological research on the future self often attributes its theoretical foundations to the philosopher Derek Parfit. Parfit argued that people might differ in the extent to which they feel similar and connected to themselves in the future.[8][9] Under Parfit's conceptualization, people act rationally by basing their concern for their future on the degree of connectedness between present and future selves. According to Parfit, it is rational for people who perceive very little connectedness with their future self to act in ways that neglect the future self (e.g., by smoking).

The psychological work that followed did not similarly argue for Parfit's normative view but has instead attempted to test the descriptive validity of Parfit's theory.[6]

Psychological theory

Social psychological and neurological evidence suggests that people think about themselves in the future similarly to how they think about other people.[1][2][3][10][11] Just as feeling close to others increases prosocial giving,[12] feeling close to one's future self motivates people to delay present gratification in order to benefit themselves in the future.[5][6]

Measuring psychological connectedness

Shane Frederick initially tested whether the degree of connectedness with the future self is associated with less discounting of future benefits (in dollar amounts and time).[13] Asking subjects how similar they felt to their future selves on a 1-100 scale, Frederick did not find a statistically significant relationship between the degree of connectedness and discounting of future benefits.[13] However, later researchers argued Frederick did not find a connection because of the way he measured connectedness.

In 2009, Hal Hershfield and colleagues introduced a new measurement of psychological connectedness by adapting the Inclusion of Other in the Self Scale,[14] where the relationship between present and future selves is depicted with seven pairs of successively overlapping circles.[15] Using this measurement, Hershfield,[16] as well as Daniel Bartels and Oleg Urminsky,[17][18][19] have now demonstrated a robust relationship between psychological connectedness and discount rates. The more psychologically connectedness people feel between present and future selves, the more they care about the future, and the less they discount future benefits.

Manipulating psychological connectedness

The research that followed showed systematic ways to enhance psychological connectedness. Experiments have manipulated connectedness by having participants:

  1. Interact with a visual depiction of their future self (increased connectedness)[7]
  2. List ways in which they expect to be similar to themselves in the future (increased connectedness)[7]
  3. Expect an upcoming event (e.g., college graduation) to fundamentally change who they are (decreased connectedness)[17]

The randomized experiments revealed a causal relationship between feeling connected to one's future self and subsequently making more patient long-term decisions.[6]

Policy applications


In one of the first experiments to enhance psychological connectedness with the future self, participants were given immersive virtual reality technology and instructed to look at themselves in a virtual mirror.[16] The experimenters randomized whether participants saw an age-progressed version of themselves (meant to look approximately 70 years old) or a current-aged self. Participants that interacted with their future self were more likely to delay present monetary rewards and indicated greater intentions to save for retirement. Leveraging the insights from this experiment, firms such as Merrill Lynch have since adopted web applications with age-progressing software in order to increase retirement savings.[20]

The finding has been conceptually replicated with multiple diverse samples. In one field experiment, students from economically diverse backgrounds that had weekly interactions with an avatar of their future self demonstrated heightened performance during a financial education course.[21] A team of researchers, in collaboration with Ideas42, launched another replication with thousands of Mexican citizens. Before deciding whether to sign-up for an automatic savings account, the treatment group was asked to spend time vividly imagining their lives in the distant future. Compared to a 1% take up rate in the control condition, 3% of people in the treatment condition enrolled in the automatic savings account.[7]

The effect of psychological connectedness on financial decision making is moderated by knowledge about future outcomes.[19] When people are unaware of their future financial needs, regardless of how connected they feel, they are unlikely to save for the future. Similarly, people that have full information about the consequences of their financial actions will only save if they also feel connectedness with their future self. The researchers argue that policy makers who provide information to consumers on retirement savings should also consider simultaneously enhancing psychological connectedness. People are most likely to save rather than spend when they are knowledgeable about the outcomes of their decisions and feel connected to their future selves.

In 2017, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau included a measure of psychological connectedness to the future self in its first Financial Wellbeing Survey.[22]


Applying the existing theory, researchers hypothesized that increasing feelings of connectedness with the future self should cause people to make healthier dieting and exercising decisions.[23] Correlational evidence suggests that feeling psychologically connected to the future self corresponds with greater self-reported health. In randomized experiments, participants that wrote in detail about a distant future self were more likely to exercise in the days following the intervention.


People engage in ethically dubious behavior because they tend to neglect the potential future consequences of their behavior, but feeling connected to one's future self should lead them to discount the future less and thus avoid ethical transgressions.[24] Experiments have found that assigning participants to write about their future selves can decrease support for unethical negotiation strategies.[24] In another set of experiments, after interacting with a 40-year old version of themselves in immersive virtual reality, college students were less likely to cheat on a following task.[25] In a field experiment in the Netherlands, high schoolers that received texts from an avatar of their future self were less likely to engage in delinquent and anti-social behavior.

Related constructs

Possible selves

Possible selves are specific ideas about who one might become in the future.[26] Possibles selves include the ideal selves people hope to become, other selves who people could become, and selves people are afraid of becoming. Possible selves can serve as a roadmap to guide individuals from where they are in the present to where they imagine being in the future.[27] When the possible selves who people imagine are unattainable fantasies, rather than reasonable expectations, effort and performance are lower across educational, dating, and medical contexts.[28]

Want-should conflicts

Want-should conflicts refer to internal conflicts between one's want self and one's should self.[29] The theory assumes people simultaneously hold two sets of preferences; one associated with their want self (i.e., present-focused, hedonistic) and one associated with their should self (i.e., future-focused, utilitarian). Interventions that seek to increase patient decision making, for example, can use commitment devices to ensure people act on their should preferences and avoid succumbing to their want preferences.[30]

Delayed gratification

Enhancing psychological connectedness to the future self can improve ability to delay gratification. Walter Mischel devoted a chapter to the future self in his book, The Marshmallow Test.[31]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Pronin, Emily; Ross, Lee (2006). "Temporal differences in trait self-ascription: When the self is seen as an other.". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90 (2): 197–209. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.90.2.197. ISSN 1939-1315. PMID 16536646. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Pronin, Emily; Olivola, Christopher Y.; Kennedy, Kathleen A. (2007-12-04). "Doing Unto Future Selves As You Would Do Unto Others: Psychological Distance and Decision Making" (in en). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 34 (2): 224–236. doi:10.1177/0146167207310023. ISSN 0146-1672. PMID 18156588. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Burum, Bethany A.; Gilbert, Daniel T.; Wilson, Timothy D. (2016). "Becoming stranger: When future selves join the out-group." (in en). Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 145 (9): 1132–1140. doi:10.1037/xge0000193. ISSN 1939-2222. PMID 27559617. 
  4. Hershfield, Hal E (2019). "The self over time". Current Opinion in Psychology 26: 72–75. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.06.004. ISSN 2352-250X. PMID 29958146. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Urminsky, Oleg (2017). "The Role of Psychological Connectedness to the Future Self in Decisions Over Time" (in en). Current Directions in Psychological Science 26 (1): 34–39. doi:10.1177/0963721416668810. ISSN 0963-7214. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Oettingen, Gabriele; Sevincer, A. Timur; Gollwitzer, Peter M. (2018-03-08) (in en). The Psychology of Thinking about the Future. Guilford Publications. ISBN 9781462534418. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Hershfield, Hal E.; John, Elicia M.; Reiff, Joseph S. (2018-09-06). "Using Vividness Interventions to Improve Financial Decision Making" (in en). Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences 5 (2): 209–215. doi:10.1177/2372732218787536. ISSN 2372-7322. 
  8. Parfit, Derek (1986-01-23). Reasons and Persons. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/019824908x.001.0001. ISBN 9780198249085. 
  9. Parfit, Derek (1971). "Personal Identity". The Philosophical Review 80 (1): 3–27. doi:10.2307/2184309. 
  10. Ersner-Hershfield, Hal; Wimmer, G. Elliott; Knutson, Brian (2008-11-30). "Saving for the future self: Neural measures of future self-continuity predict temporal discounting" (in en). Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 4 (1): 85–92. doi:10.1093/scan/nsn042. ISSN 1749-5016. PMID 19047075. 
  11. Mitchell, Jason P.; Schirmer, Jessica; Ames, Daniel L.; Gilbert, Daniel T. (2011). "Medial Prefrontal Cortex Predicts Intertemporal Choice". Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 23 (4): 857–866. doi:10.1162/jocn.2010.21479. ISSN 0898-929X. PMID 20350058. 
  12. Oppenheimer, Daniel M. (2011-01-19) (in en). The Science of Giving. Taylor & Francis. doi:10.4324/9780203865972. ISBN 9780203865972. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 Frederick, Shane (2003). "Time preference and personal identity". Time and Decision: 89–113. 
  14. Aron, Arthur; Aron, Elaine N.; Smollan, Danny (1992). Inclusion of Other in the Self Scale. doi:10.1037/t03963-000. 
  15. Ersner-Hershfield, Hal; Garton, M. Tess; Ballard, Kacey; Samanez-Larkin, Gregory R.; Knutson, Brian (2009-06-01). "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow: Individual differences in future self-continuity account for saving". Judgment and Decision Making 4 (4): 280–286. ISSN 1930-2975. PMID 19774230. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 Hershfield, Hal E; Goldstein, Daniel G; Sharpe, William F; Fox, Jesse; Yeykelis, Leo; Carstensen, Laura L; Bailenson, Jeremy N (2011). "Increasing Saving Behavior Through Age-Progressed Renderings of the Future Self". Journal of Marketing Research 48 (SPL): S23–S37. doi:10.1509/jmkr.48.spl.s23. ISSN 0022-2437. PMID 24634544. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 Bartels, Daniel M.; Rips, Lance J. (2010). "Psychological connectedness and intertemporal choice.". Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 139 (1): 49–69. doi:10.1037/a0018062. ISSN 1939-2222. PMID 20121312. 
  18. Bartels, Daniel M.; Urminsky, Oleg (2011-06-01). "On Intertemporal Selfishness: How the Perceived Instability of Identity Underlies Impatient Consumption". Journal of Consumer Research 38 (1): 182–198. doi:10.1086/658339. ISSN 0093-5301. 
  19. 19.0 19.1 Bartels, Daniel M.; Urminsky, Oleg (2015-04-01). "To Know and to Care: How Awareness and Valuation of the Future Jointly Shape Consumer Spending". Journal of Consumer Research 41 (6): 1469–1485. doi:10.1086/680670. ISSN 0093-5301. 
  20. "New Merrill Edge Mobile App Uses 3D Technology to Put Retirement Planning in Your Hands" (Press release). Bank of America. Retrieved 2018-11-12.
  21. "Connecting to Your Future Self: Enhancing Financial Planning Among Diverse Communities Using Virtual Technology". The Gerontologist 55 (Suppl_2): 311. 2015-10-23. doi:10.1093/geront/gnv610.04. ISSN 0016-9013. 
  22. "Financial Well-Being Survey Data" (in en). Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 
  23. Rutchick, Abraham M.; Slepian, Michael L.; Reyes, Monica O.; Pleskus, Lindsay N.; Hershfield, Hal E. (2018). "Future self-continuity is associated with improved health and increases exercise behavior.". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 24 (1): 72–80. doi:10.1037/xap0000153. ISSN 1939-2192. PMID 29595304. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 Hershfield, Hal E.; Cohen, Taya R.; Thompson, Leigh (2012). "Short horizons and tempting situations: Lack of continuity to our future selves leads to unethical decision making and behavior". Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 117 (2): 298–310. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2011.11.002. ISSN 0749-5978. 
  25. van Gelder, Jean-Louis; Hershfield, Hal E.; Nordgren, Loran F. (2013-04-16). "Vividness of the Future Self Predicts Delinquency". Psychological Science 24 (6): 974–980. doi:10.1177/0956797612465197. ISSN 0956-7976. PMID 23592649. 
  26. Markus, Hazel; Nurius, Paula (1986). "Possible selves.". American Psychologist 41 (9): 954–969. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.41.9.954. ISSN 0003-066X. 
  27. Oyserman, Daphna; Bybee, Deborah; Terry, Kathy; Hart-Johnson, Tamera (2004). "Possible selves as roadmaps". Journal of Research in Personality 38 (2): 130–149. doi:10.1016/s0092-6566(03)00057-6. ISSN 0092-6566. 
  28. Oettingen, Gabriele; Mayer, Doris (2002). "The motivating function of thinking about the future: Expectations versus fantasies.". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83 (5): 1198–1212. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.83.5.1198. ISSN 0022-3514. PMID 12416922. 
  29. Bitterly, T. Bradford; Mislavsky, Robert; Dai, Hengchen; Milkman, Katherine L. (2014). Want/Should Conflict: A Synthesis of Past Research. 
  30. Milkman, Katherine L.; Rogers, Todd; Bazerman, Max H. (2008). "Harnessing Our Inner Angels and Demons: What We Have Learned About Want/Should Conflicts and How That Knowledge Can Help Us Reduce Short-Sighted Decision Making" (in en). Perspectives on Psychological Science 3 (4): 324–338. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2008.00083.x. ISSN 1745-6916. PMID 26158952. 
  31. Walter., Mischel (2015-09-22). The marshmallow test : mastering self-control. ISBN 9780316230865. OCLC 921892138.