It's one more drink that you shouldn't have, one more bet you shouldn't make, one more day of putting off what you know needs doing. You know you'll regret it – or, at least, you know some future version of you will regret what you did, or shirked, today. Yet some part of you wants what's immediate and easy. Right here, right now, you're experiencing the odd yet universal sensation that today's self is at odds with tomorrow's. And a third part of you looks on, unsure whether it's short-term self or long-term self who will win.
These conflicting motives are a large part of the reason people fail to behave as responsibly as they'd intended, with serious consequences for themselves and society. Retirees who haven’t saved enough to live on can place a burden on the whole economy. A 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics study found that single mothers who smoke spend significantly less time talking, playing and otherwise interacting with their children – and those children have lower average test scores in school.
Why don't people do the responsible thing, even when they themselves have decided it's best? The common thread in behaviors like spending now (retirement be damned) or smoking now (never mind the cancer risks) or playing Angry Birds now (the tax return is due tomorrow?) is, of course, now. The playing field between long-term goals and immediate gratification is not level; humans greatly prefer now. This preference is nigh irresistible, built in by eons of evolution in an uncertain world, where now is pressing and the future hazy. We can't really help the way the mind is shaped: For almost all of us, an ice cream cone after lunch might sound terrific on a hot day, while the promise of the same cone delivered on June 16, 2024, can’t compare.
This preference is so strong that reason and logic can't be relied upon to overcome it. But technology might be able to help. Behavioral researchers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management have harnessed virtual reality to help people view their long-term selves as more real and sympathetic – and their future needs therefore harder to ignore now. As study leader Hal Ersner-Hirschfield puts it, virtual reality can "bridge the gap between who we are now and who we will be in the future."
Human beings have long fought their bias for now by creating situations in which bad short-term choices are impossible, a tactic the sociologist Jon Elster has called "self-binding." Recall Odysseus, says Elster, who had himself tied to the mast of his ship and stopped the ears of his crew before passing the irresistible but deadly Sirens. That way, he could hear the Sirens’ song but be unable to turn his ship, however much he’d want to in the moment.
Such precommitments abound in life: they're in all our contracts, from the salary agreement that obligates an employer to pay you even if he doesn't feel like it, to the wedding vow that makes you think twice about running off with someone else. But self-binding isn't as powerful as it was in the ancient world, when oaths were sacred and second chances were few. In a society that stresses free choices and infinite options, it's easy to unbind oneself. Because many of our bindings today consist of contracts and agreements, rather than rope or chains, we have many ways, once we've changed our minds, to undo our precommitments.
The virtual-reality strategy takes a different approach to the problem of motivation. Rather than appeal to reason, it appeals to a powerful emotion: Empathy. Ersner-Hirchfeld's idea is that we ignore our long-term selves because we don't have much in common with them, and we never think about them. "To those estranged from their future selves," he and his co-authors wrote in a recent paper, "saving is like a choice between spending money today or giving it to a stranger years from now."
Ersner-Hirschfield and his colleagues reasoned that people could be nudged into identifying better with, well, themselves. The experimenters used age-morphing software to create a virtual mirror in which subjects could see their own images, altered by the software's estimate of how the passing years would add jowls, crow's feet, gray hair and other age marks. As the researchers had hoped, volunteers who had seen their older selves in the "mirror" were willing to devote nearly twice as much of their current earnings to retirement savings than were people who just saw avatars of their present-day selves. "We were surprised that it had this big of an effect," Ersner-Hirschfield has said.
Still, it's one thing to make yet another resolution and another thing to stick to it outside the realm of daydreams. Subjects said they would devote more savings to the future after seeing their aged selves, but would they actually do it in the real world? That's what the researchers are looking into next. Encouragingly, other experiments suggest that people are easily affected by their virtual-reality incarnations: Tall avatars, for instance, make people more confident, and gym-rat avatars seem to spur their owners to go to the real gym more often. This effect is stronger when people are exposed repeatedly.
That's an idea that one investment company is pursuing: In the hopes of encouraging investors to save more, Allianz Global Investors is working "to scale down the technology to a level that would be practicable for financial advisors to use with their clients," according to Shlomo Benartzi, the company's Chief Behavioral Economist. Allianz calls the project its "behavioral time machine."
The Northwestern researchers are also looking into using virtual-reality for more active feedback. They've designed aged avatars whose expressions correlate with how much their real-world counterparts are willing to save. In other words, they "change expression as a function of the quality of the decision,” says Ersner-Hirschfield. “If I allocate a lot toward retirement, my future self will actually smile at me." The researchers are testing the effects of these avatars now.
By harnessing our ability to feel empathy for strangers, science may soon offer a tool that could help us sidestep guilt and the muttered regrets of so many of our future selves: "What was I thinking?"David Berreby blogs about behavior at Bigthink.com and has written about science for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and many other publications. He is the author of Us and Them: The Science of Identity, published by Little, Brown