Tricking The Future

Humans are selfish. We think about ourselves a lot. When we judge by our evolutionary track record, this is awesome. Being selfish is the way to go. And honestly? Fuck everyone else. They can deal with their own problems. Right? Maybe. But sometimes that other person you’re telling to fuck off is you.

Huh? To put it another way, your brain treats Future You as a completely different person. I say all the time “That seems like a problem for future Dylan”, but I was always pretty sure I was joking. But I wasn’t joking. Our brains, according to Kelly McGonigal of Stanford University, have a disconnect between how we think of ourselves now and how we think of ourselves in the future. Scans of the brain have shown that different areas of the brain light up depending whether we are thinking about ourselves or someone else. Those of us with low “future self continuity” light up all the other people brain areas when they think about themselves in the future.

Present Dylan vs Future Dylan

Present Dylan vs Future Dylan


So we don’t give a shit about other people. Or the shits that we give don’t really compare all that well to the shits we give about ourselves. We give all the shits about ourselves. If you think about Future You as a separate person, then you aren’t saving so you’ll be well taken care of in your later years, you’re giving away a chunk of your paycheck to some free loading old bastard! You’re not doing sit-ups to build and tone your physique, you’re being put through torture so that some monstrous “other” can get hot and bang Future Babes. Why does Dylan want to do all this work just so that asshole Future Dylan can reap all the benefits?!?!

Because that asshole is me. I am the asshole. I am Future Dylan… or will be. It’s just another case of the human brain being terrible at everything. But until Apple starts making iBrains, what do we do?

I am the asshole.

I am the asshole.

Enter the Commitment Device!

Unfortunately you can’t get a commitment device at Best Buy. A commitment device is a tactic. You’ve probably had plenty experience with them even if you are just reading the term for the first time. The classic example is in the Greek epic poem The Odyssey, which I trust you’ve all committed to memory. You have Odysseus who has his crew tie himself to a mast so he can sail past the Sirens and hear their song without being overwhelmed and jumping overboard to his demise. Or in other words Present Odysseus creates a mechanism to prevent Future Odysseus from ending up dead.

However, death doesn’t need to be on the line. Ever bought an expensive gym membership in the belief that the financial commitment would spur you into health? Same thing. Present You was taking a bet that Future You would hate the idea of losing money and therefor actually stop watching Jersey Shore and go run on a treadmill.  When I started this blog back in The Beginning of Something Begun, I started telling everyone that I was giving up smoking and drinking. Announcing a goal to the world so that the world keeps you accountable can be a great commitment device, because no one wants to be asked “What ever happened to that diet of yours?” when you’re halfway through a bucket of KFC. Or you could have a friend hold a $500 check and, if you fail to put money in your retirement account, have them send it to Sarah Palin. These days there are even websites like that’ll help you set up your own device.

Commitment devices are only limited by your imagination.

Every time I smoke a cigarette I have to bludgeon a puppy to death

Every time I smoke a cigarette I have to bludgeon a puppy to death, for example

So that pretty much wraps it up right? Find the right lever and you can topple any obstacle, right? Hmmm, be careful. Commitment devices can often backfire. Sometimes telling people you’ve set a goal can trigger the same sense of accomplishment in the brain that actually accomplishing things does, so you feel less compelled to actually forgo the KFC since you took a verbal stand. Plus, it is very easy for your device to be an incentive to not achieve your goal. If you decide to tax yourself for every hour wasted watching Jersey Shore by sending $10 to Make-A-Wish, you might just end up linking Jersey Shore with charity in your mind and justifying your reality tv binges with the tingly feeling you get from helping the unfortunate.

And you also have to consider the fact that Future You is probably smarter than Present You. Sure you might think you’ve locked yourself into your exercise routine with an elegantly designed Rube Goldberg Machine of rewards and punishments. But Future You also designed the commitment device. And Future You is just as smart, if not smarter than you. And Future You does NOT want any of that exercise bullshit. Even if you do manage to create an inescapable tangle of sticks and carrots to keep yourself on track, that very win can feel like a loss. The realization that the only way you can keep your hand off that donut is a gun to your head can be so demoralizing that that you depress your way right back to Dunkin.

Well fuck.

Daniel Goldstein in the video above points out some of these problems and goes back to the idea of how hard it is for us to remember that we are our future selves. He and his co-researchers have been working on creating a flurry of tools in an attempt to help people visualize their future. Specifically, he’s dealing with your financial future and trying to make seeing the consequences of your present savings on the you of the future.

While I didn’t have access to Goldstein’s tools, the investment firm Merrill Edge has a rather neat Face Retirement app on their website that’ll let you look your future right in the eye.



Until I saw this photo, I didn’t realize all the money I was going to need to come up with during my later years for plastic surgery. Yikes. Does staring into the computer generated face of my centenarian self help me stop thinking of Future Dylan as a separate entity? Maybe it does a bit. Underneath the CGI wrinkles you can still make out my sad blue eyes and my enormous ego. Researcher Hal Hershfield has seen evidence in the numbers too. When test subjects were tasked with allocating a portion their paycheck to retirement, a bigger chunk was sliced off by those shown an image of their future selves.

So is that the answer to all our ills? Technology letting you meet the you that can’t stop eating twinkies? Or on the flip side, meeting the better version of you that exercises every day? That plays beer pong less? That watches fewer cartoons? Maybe.

But there are no magic bullets. Perhaps it’s a combination of visualization and some commitment device trickery. It’ll also probably take some grit. And willpower.

These sound like problems for Future Dylan.

Wait. Shit.


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