Making a Deal with Your Future Self

Last July when I started my job, I was told that success will involve completing a set of 30-35 online physics modules over one year.  Each module takes only 1 hour, and I have a whole year to do it.  35 hours over one year, or six minutes a day.

Really, for merely 6 minutes a day I could be successful?

Naturally, ten months later I’ve made little progress towards this requirement.

Dynamic inconsistency is a fancy phrase for our tendency to indulge pleasure now and to put off pain for later.  The scientific process assumes that all that is held constant remains, by definition, unchanged.  Unfortunately, this assumption falls apart when talking about ourselves because humans are not rational.

It’s how we change our decisions over time even when nothing has objectively changed.  The reason?   Despite being the arguably only self-aware organism on Earth, perhaps humans have not sufficiently embraced the concept of the self across the temporal dimension.  Research has repeatedly shown that we unconsciously believe that our future selves are entirely different people.  We tend to believe that the future versions of ourselves have more time, energy, and willpower.  This accounts for why research subjects readily sign themselves up for more time spent of volunteering that occurs further into the future.

Also, we get to feel good about being good people today; the work itself happens later.  Let the future me worry about that.  In fact, accomplished psychologists managed to write entire books and build careers on this concept.

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal identifies the concept of willpower as arising from three  – I will, I won’t , and I want.  Neuroscience generally accepts these “powers” as arising from different portions of the brain (if you care, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex for decision initiation), (right inferior frontal gyrus for decision inhibition),  (mesolimbic pathways for craving/wants).

Behavioral economist and expert on irrational decision-making Dan Ariely argues  that the logic also works the other way.  That is, making a deal with your future self, by allowing him/her to indulge as a reward for efforts made today, can sometimes work well.  Microsoft researcher Daniel Goldstein describes this as a commitment device.

A commitment device is one of the several tools that have been shown to increase future thinking.  Others include visualizing the future self – in this study researchers literally rendered a portrait of the subject’s future self using computers, creating a trigger for the “correct” behavior, and simply removing the option of not doing the right thing (e.g. an alarm clock with which sleeping in is impossible).

Ultimately all of the above are difficult options to pursue for a simple reason – the present self has all the power; the present self makes all the decisions.

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Howard Chen
Vice Chair for Artificial Intelligence at Cleveland Clinic Diagnostics Institute
Howard is passionate about making diagnostic tests more accurate, expedient, and affordable through disciplined implementation of advanced technology. He previously served as Chief Informatics Officer for Imaging, where he led teams deploying and unifying radiology applications and AI in a multi-state, multi-hospital environment. Blog opinions are his own and in no way reflect those of the employer.

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