The Battle Between Your Present And Future Self

TEDDaniel Goldstein shows the audience the computer imaging program that predicts how our ‘future selves’ might look, depending upon what decisions we make.

We all struggle with giving in to immediate gratification and making decisions that are good for the long term.

Microsoft Principal Researcher Daniel Goldstein spoke about this tension in an excellent TED talk, “The Battle Between Your Present And Future Self,” which he gave in November 2011.

Oftentimes, he says, we’ll try and use “commitment devices,” or make a contract with ourselves while we’re rational to stop ourselves from giving in to temptation later.

But as anyone who’s tried to stick with a diet regimen knows, this doesn’t really work. We can easily talk ourselves out of the best-laid plans. Goldstein explains:

“It’s an unequal battle between the present self and the future self. I mean, 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. And 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’s nobody to stick up for the future self. And so the present self can trounce all over its dreams.”

So how do we better resist temptation? By imagining ourselves more clearly in the future, as products of our decisions.

Goldstein and his colleagues created a computer program for this very purpose: To imagine our future selves with any number of future decisions. They used computer imaging to show how a person might look if they smoke, gain weight, and so on. They also created a spectrum to show a person’s happiness over time, particularly related to financial decisions and retirement. “Now saving is a classic two-selves problem,” says Goldstein. “The present self does not want to save at all; it wants to consume. Whereas the future self wants the present self to save. So this is a timely problem.”

Many people have a tough time believing that they’ll one day grow old and will, in fact, have to accept the consequences of their decisions. Clay Christensen, Harvard Business School professor and author of the popular theory of disruptive innovation, wrote about this in his 2012 book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?”

“We have a bias to allocate based on short-term results,” Christensen writes. “Companies focus on short-term returns vs. long-term returns. People under-invest in family because it doesn’t pay off until the long term.”

And that’s at the heart of the struggle. Especially today, our culture emphasises immediate gratification and short-term results. But by focusing on what’s in front of us, compromising our values to get ahead now, we’re bound to fall short in the long term.

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