I had a great chat with Hal Hershfield, one of the world’s reaching researchers on mental time travel, one of my decision-making topics (I’ve been on a Q&A roll!). His new book, Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today, comes out today (June 6, 2023) and is an absolute must-read for anyone obsessed (like I am) with better decision making. Hal is a Professor of Marketing, Behavioral Decision Making, and Psychology at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. I hope you learn as much from Hal as I did.
Defining Mental Time Travel
Annie: I encourage mental time travel a lot in terms of improving decision making. Could you explain the term as it applies in your work and Your Future Self?
Hal Hershfield: Mental time travel is the ability to move forward or backward in time in our minds. We are incredibly good at this, and we do it in sophisticated ways. I can think about what I’m going to have for lunch later today. I can also think about the fact that I need to eventually get a Father’s Day card for my dad and that may make me think about what he was like when I was a kid. Then, I can also project forward and think about, how will my own kids think about me as a father? There are all sorts of back-and-forth travel there.
Annie: Is mental time travel something that’s unique to humans? Is it part of what it means to be human?
Hal Hershfield: There’s debate about whether or not humans can uniquely do this because you can see evidence of it with some animals. We see some evidence of a little bit of mental time travel in the animal world. If I’m a squirrel socking away food for later, that’s a form of mental time travel. But I think we can safely say that humans can uniquely do this in incredibly sophisticated and often effective ways.
Annie: As far as our best guess, would you say that it’s unique to humans to be able to mentally time travel beyond your own lifetime?
Hal Hershfield: Absolutely. The ability for humans to think about not just time moving forward within our own lives, but then time that exists after our own lifetimes, is unique and can also be terrifying. But it’s something that we can do.
Annie: How much mental time travel are we doing?
Hal Hershfield: Some evidence from neuroimaging suggests that, in fact, mental time travel is our default state. If I’m just sort of doing nothing, I’m probably engaging in some form of thinking ahead or thinking back. In other words, “nothing” is not really nothing.
It is something that we do all the time. I’d be hard pressed to find somebody who at some point in their day doesn’t think about something beyond the present moment. There’s interesting research that tracks people during their days and uses experience sampling and finds out that a majority of the time, we are thinking ahead, not that far ahead. Like, I’m planning for later tonight and tomorrow. Time travel is fundamental, so much so that even if I think I’m doing nothing, often what I am doing is jumping ahead in my mind and maybe jumping back and forth again.
Mental Time Travel Mistakes
Annie: Here’s the thing that I find a little bit paradoxical. It feels like we’re doing a lot of mental time traveling, but can you talk about the ways in which we’re not doing enough of it or maybe not doing it right?
Hal Hershfield: We have the machinery to engage in this sophisticated mental time travel, and yet sometimes we end up making decisions that we later regret, which suggests that maybe we’re not tuning our mental time travel machines expertly. We’ve either (a) projected too much on to the future self in a way that isn’t fair, or (b) despite our ability to mental time travel, we get too anchored on the present. By that, I mean we’re exhibiting present bias. We’re overweighting what we’re experiencing right now when making decisions that trade off now and later. Of course, everybody would be forgiven for paying attention to right now because, after all, that’s the period of time you live in.
Annie: Fair. It would be bad for survival if we weren’t paying attention to right now. We would not notice the lion that was coming at us.
Hal Hershfield: Totally. The problem becomes when we pay so much attention to now that we’ve then ignored or neglected later. Imagine a scenario where you’re going on a trip and you’re packing a suitcase. You’re on the east coast. It’s February and it’s cold, so you’re going to Florida where it will be warmer. You know it will be warmer, but you can’t get over the fact that you’re really cold while you’re packing. So, you throw in a couple of extra sweaters just in case. Then, you get there and the sweaters in your suitcase go unworn.
What’s the error there? It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. Maybe you could have downsized your bag. Maybe you could have gotten there with different clothes, etcetera. The problem is when you translate that metaphor over to mental time travel. The idea is that, fundamentally, there can be times where I convince myself that I’m thinking ahead but, in doing so, I get too anchored on my present-day feelings. Just like I get too anchored on the weather around me right now and use those feelings to project ahead to my future self. This encompasses projection bias, which is when we use our present-day emotions and project them onto a future self who may in fact feel very differently than we do now.
But I think what’s interesting about this type of time travel mistake is that there’s something pernicious about it. We tell ourselves that we’re doing right by our future selves when in fact we may be doing a disservice to them because we fail to appreciate how much they will change and how their circumstances may differ from our circumstances right now. We trick ourselves into thinking that is planning, but it’s not really.
Stepping Away from the Present at Decision Time
Annie: Daniel Kahneman talks about being “in it” and he says the worst time to make a decision is when you’re in it, meaning the moment that you’re facing down a decision. You need to get time and space from the decision. Is that kind of what you’re saying?
Hal Hershfield: I think that’s part of it. There’s a version where, if I’m in an emotionally charged hot state, it can be difficult to fully step away from the feelings I’m having right now. Even if I say, “oh, I’ll step away,” I still may be anchored on them. It suggests that if we want to make a decision that balances out or harmonizes our feelings now and our feelings later, it may make sense to try to do it in a way when I’m in a calmer, cooler state. But that’s not always practical, because there can be times where I’m in it and I have to make a decision, so this becomes really tricky.
Annie: Here’s one of the things that I think is interesting about mental time travel and tell me if this tracks. If you’re an emotionally hot state and you can add a step into the decision, which is, “hold on, let me think about a month from now. How am I going to feel about this decision I’m about to make?” Given where in the brain mental time travel is occurring versus where in the brain this emotionally hot state is, if we could somehow add that step in, would that actually help cool the emotions down? And also get us in touch with how I’m going to feel about this in the future. “Am I going to regret this later?”
Hal Hershfield: I think there’s something there. It requires a decent amount of sophisticated reasoning and thought. But at the same time, if explicitly asked to think about, “how will I feel about something in the future?”, we’re not always great at that. We have a difficult time simulating, but it suggests that may be helpful in figuring out what my reactions might be to something I’ve done right now, in specific scenarios when we’re talking about these emotion-laden hot scenarios.
But there’s other research I point to in the book suggesting that when it comes to bigger, more abstract decisions, like career choices or where to live, we’re really bad at simulating these sorts of big decisions. It may make more sense to find somebody who’s gone through a similar experience and ask them, because even though we think we’re unique, we’re not all that unique. Somebody else who’s maybe similar to us who’s gone through something, they’ve got valuable data points because they’ve already done it.
Annie: Would you say that there’s difference between decisions where we have data from our past self that can help us, and decisions where we don’t have that data? I have a goal of eating healthy, but I have a cupcake in front of me. If I stop and say, “If I eat this cupcake, when I wake up tomorrow am I going to be happy or sad that I did it?” There, I have lots and lots of data about myself. The answer has much more certainty around it because I’ve eaten cupcakes in the past and I know how I feel about it the next day. But maybe we’re not so good at simulating when we don’t have a lot of data about the decision?
Hal Hershfield: I think that’s exactly right. There are certain scenarios where we do have data. I’ve told myself I’m going to go out on a run in the morning and if I sleep in, I know that later tonight I won’t feel great about myself. I’ve been in that exact scenario, have data points there. In another case, we’re deciding, would it be wise for me to move cities? I’ve never lived in Portland. I’ve visited and I love it, but I don’t know what it would be like to live there. I might be better served by asking someone who has lived in LA and moved to Portland and who I think I’d identify with, because that’s a data point there.
Annie: I think it’s interesting. We can think about trying to get in touch with some other version of us, or trying to get in touch with somebody else who’s already lived it. And those can both be helpful in terms of getting us to more accurate answers.
Hal Hershfield: Yeah, exactly.
Annie: I want to talk specifically about some of your research on temporal discounting. Can you start by explaining what temporal discounting is?
Hal Hershfield: Temporal discounting is basically the idea that I place less value on a reward that I could get in the future relative to something I could get right now. And I should say, it’s totally rational to do that. If I’m offered $100 now or $100 in a week, of course I should just take the money right now. Problematic behavior arises when we engage in excessive temporal discounting. When I’m offered $100 now or $500 next week and I still go for $100 now, there could be cases where that makes sense, like if I desperately need the money right now. But all things being equal, if I could wait, I probably should because that’s a much better return.
Annie: Then, we can take that out of money and say, if I know that I would like to be healthy and I don’t want to eat sugar and I’m trying to live longer, that’s like the $500 in the future. If I eat a cupcake now, it’s like taking the $100 now.
Hal Hershfield: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. If the cupcake right now is the reward that I want, it’s salient right there. It’s in the present. If I eat that right now, in some ways what I’m doing is discounting the value of my future health. And it sounds a little funny cause it’s like that’s one cupcake. But the problem is when you do that over and over again,
Annie: Let’s now take that to a real-life problem. I mean, cupcakes are a real-life problem, but can you talk about something that has a huge impact, not just on the individual, but the country. I’m referring to our shortcomings in retirement planning. How does the retirement shortfall relate to mental time travel?
Hal Hershfield: Basically, it used to be the case that we didn’t have to think that hard about retirement because most people worked for companies that had pensions, or we had a robust social security system. Then, at some point we shifted over so that now the responsibility falls a lot on the individual worker. A few things have happened. One is that when it’s your own responsibility to save, it’s easy to not save as much. Another thing that’s happened is that people are living longer and longer. And then the third thing is that people still retire around the same age. Now, you’re left with all these extra of years of life that are underfunded.
Of course, there may be plenty of times when I can’t save because I’ve got fund my basic needs today. But there are these problematic cases. For example, if you’re so lucky to be working for an employer who offers you a retirement plan with a match, if I don’t save at the match rate, if I’m leaving money on the table, that can be considered a form of temporal discounting because I’m opting to spend that money right now rather than save it for later.
Annie: That would be discretionary money. We’re not talking about, whether you should buy food or get the match. We’re talking about, “Are you going to get the sensible car or the more expensive one?”
Hal Hershfield: Exactly. We have to be really careful to say, it’s not like I’m trading off the food that I have right now versus saving later, but it’s the discretionary money where I could be saving and buying the sensible car, or I could be not saving as much, but buying a car that’s a little bit outside of my reach right now. It could just be the one that’s just a little bit more. These are forms of temporal discounting.
The thing that worries me, and I think worries a lot of researchers, is when we engage in that sort of behavior again and again and again, we’re really in a bad situation later and we tell ourselves, “Well, I’ll just keep working when I’m older.” The problem there is that there’s a very good chance we could experience some negative health event that’ll make it harder to continue working to make up for the shortfall. I don’t know what workforce changes will occur. I don’t know what happens if I get let go and I’m in my fifties or sixties and whether I can get back into the workforce. Betting on continuing to work until I die is a pretty risky bet.
Annie: Would you say that part of the problem is that I’m not in touch with how future me will feel? If I’m 35 and I’m deciding between a Honda or a more expensive BMW, how much is my 60-year-old self going to care that I had a Honda or a BMW when I was 35? That I’m just bad, at the moment of the decision, at figuring out what my 60-year-old self will have valued.
Hal Hershfield: When you’re faced with these sorts of decisions, the Honda or the BMW, a couple of biases creep in. One is that I think the BMW will make me happier in the next year or two. The reality is that it might, but I also might quickly habituate to it.
Annie: So that’s an affective forecasting problem.
Hal Hershfield: Exactly. Then, there becomes this other question of, if I’ve spent that money on that more expensive car and therefore don’t have as much money to save when I’m in my sixties or even in two years when I want to go on a vacation, will I be happy with that decision? I think there are individual differences. There could be somebody who gets a ton of utility out of driving the nicer car and that makes their life better right now. They might say, “I am going to value the choice of the more expensive car. It’s going to make my day-to-day life happier and in two years when I have to go on a car trip around my state rather than get on an airplane, I don’t care that I spent extra because I got that.” That’s fine.
But it’s not a one-size-fits-all problem. The problem is when all my decisions are focused on the right now. Basically, the problem arises when I’m constantly focused on the present.
Three Strategies for Taking Better Care of Your Future Self
Annie: We’ve touched on numerous decision-making problems: Difficulty in imagining and giving appropriate weight to the needs of our future self, including temporal discounting, present bias, affective forecasting, along with a few examples, like valuing the present too much and the future not enough when it comes to our health and retirement planning.
Let’s get down to brass tacks on becoming better decision makers. What are the strategies that we can use that are going to help us be better at such decisions now, to harness this incredible ability that we have to be able to engage in mental time travel?
Hal Hershfield: I’ll talk generally about three from the book. One is to try to strengthen the relationship we have with our future self. That sounds abstract, but one way we can do that is to try to make the future self more vivid.
I love the idea of writing a letter to and from my future self. It allows me to step into his shoes and see the world through his eyes. I’ve played with age progression in my research and that seems to have an impact on people. But I think that’s not always the type of thing that I can just do myself and suddenly save more. You have to engage in these activities when you’re faced with one of these big decisions.
Annie: Just to be clear, explain what age progression is. I know part of it is, when you’re thinking about a decision affecting your future retirement, looking into a virtual mirror or an image of what you might look like at retirement age.
Hal Hershfield: I would say go beyond just what you think you’ll look like, but then try to figure out, “how will I be spending my time? Who will I spend it with? What will I be doing for my work?” We may not know the answers to any of these questions but asking them can force us to get a little closer to the vivid emotional core of who we will be. I like these strategies – letter writing, looking at pictures of your older self – for the big single-shot moments. Should I be enrolling in a higher savings plan or not? Should I increase my savings? But I don’t think that these are the solutions to use when I’m faced with the cupcake every night, because then it becomes harder to constantly have that conversation.
The second bucket of solutions is commitment devices. I love commitment devices. Others have talked about these, but I think they are interesting to look at through the lens of present and future selves. The gist here is that I do something that constrains my behavior. Literally, take the cupcakes out of the house or my favorite, a little safe with a timer on it that you can put things in. But to me an intriguing aspect of commitment devices is that I have to pick strategies that will be painful enough to make me not do a behavior, but not so painful that I don’t adopt them to begin with.
These are good strategies because if I’m just really focused on right now and I say, “I don’t want to eat anymore cupcakes, I will never buy a cupcake again, that’s my strategy”, that’s not that fair to my future self, because he’s going to eventually want one.
Let me add one more thing, which is that I also like the idea of attacking “the side” rather than “the core.” If I’m saying that I want to cut back on cupcakes, why am I saying that? It’s because I want to have fewer calories. If cupcakes are something that I really, really love, what if I keep those but turn the dial down on something else that I mindlessly eat that doesn’t give me as much pleasure, but it just happens to be around? It may be easier to take that thing out of my life, or to moderate it, than to give up cupcakes.
Then, the third bucket of strategies is recognizing that all these decisions we’ve been talking about require a sacrifice by my present self for the benefit of my future self. My future self? That’s a person I don’t know, and he never makes sacrifices for me. It’s like of being in a relationship. A bad relationship would be one where I’m always sacrificing, and my partner is never sacrificing. That’s kind of what happens in these cases. I always feel the pain and that future me gets the gain.
One other strategy we’ve been toying with is figuring out ways to make the present-day sacrifices feel easier to undertake. One thing I’ve done involves temporal reframing, which is a fancy term for, if I’m talking about money, rather than thinking about $150 a month, let’s think about $5 a day. By the way, that works well when it comes to signing up for a savings plan. But I think the bigger point is how can I take the things that I’m doing right now and just make them more bite sized, make them easier to grapple with? How can I couple anything that’s negative with the positive? Of course, that brings up temptation bundling, et cetera.
(Note from Annie: Yesterday, a posted a Q&A with Katy Milkman where we went deep into her work on temptation bundling.)
Annie: I’m so fascinated by this idea of thinking, “I’m always making the sacrifice and my future self is never paying me back and never doing anything for me.” Does it help, besides bundling or pre-commitment devices or temporal reframing, to mentally travel to the past and say, “but my past version of myself did this thing and I’m really happy they did it”?
Hal Hershfield: It’s not something I’ve ever explored, but I love the idea of saying, there’s a constant give and take. Part of the reason I can do what I’m doing right now is because past me did something, and I use that and project it forward. I love that idea, but it’s not been tested, per se.
Paper Dolls and Different Versions of Ourselves
Annie: As I was reading the intro to Your Future Self, Derek Parfit came to mind and the way he proposes that over time we are different versions of ourselves, all slightly different but connected, like a strong over paper dolls that are not quite perfect copies of each other but connected at the arms.
In some ways, our intuition is that we are who we are. I was Annie when I was born. I was Annie when I was in college. I was Annie when I got married. I was Annie when I had kids. I’m Annie now. But then, as I look back on my life, I feel in some ways like high-school-me, for example, was just a different person. There is obviously a connection between those version of me but all those version of me are different version of Annie, as well.
I think we have conflicting intuitions around that. I would love to get your thoughts on those conflicting intuitions and reality in terms of your research. Which intuition is dominant? Which one is right?
Hal Hershfield: I think you are spot on. There are all these ways that we change. The notion that we are more of a collection of separate selves, which is probably something Parfit would suggest, that feels like a notion that better captures the way that identity actually works. But then you go a layer further, this “paper dolls” notion is so important because what it suggests is that we can be these separate selves, but there is something that ties us together over time.
The idea that we can be separate selves but have a thread that goes through them and that thread being our core moral traits, that to me feels like a more graspable notion of identity. I think it’s something that a lot of people can relate to.
Annie: You open the book with a really interesting story, about how there can sometimes be a severance between past us and future us, as if the chain of paper dolls was cut at some point. I would love for you to talk about that story and what that teaches us about who we are over time.
Hal Hershfield: I’m a huge fan of one particular true crime podcast. It’s my guilty pleasure. I’d heard this episode about this guy who was, he was the real-life inspiration for Dexter. He actually just died. You have this guy who’s one of the worst serial killers in the history of Brazil, gets put into prison, and because of some loophole in their legal system ends up getting released after 35 years.
Annie: When they let him out of prison, how many people had he killed?
Hal Hershfield: The numbers are a little bit fuzzy because some of this is his own report and some of it is what happened in prison. But one number that I’ve heard is 71.
I think with what life life expectancy used to be, Brazil was like, “35 years will cover it.” Then, after this loophole, they were like, “What do we do?” The law made them release him and they were constantly trying to get him back in, but they couldn’t.
At some point while he was in prison, he had an altercation, was put in solitary confinement, and has this almost cliché conversation with God where he says, “If I can get through this, I’ll be a changed man.”
But in his case, I think there’s some truth to it because he doesn’t kill again, deals with his anger differently, and becomes this productive member of the community. He works at a bottling plant, exercises every morning, and runs a YouTube channel for at-risk youth.
Essentially what he says to me is, “I’m disgusted by the person I once was.” To your point, there’s this severance, almost like this clean break. This is not a cut and dried type of thing. We can debate, is he truly better now or is he just pretending to be? The point being, I think it’s easy to look at him and say he is qualitatively a different person now than he was when he was younger.
What I think is so interesting about this is that it’s an extreme case. but it highlights the notion that in many ways we can separate from who we were to who we are now. I think it also suggests moving forward to that person can be a separation from us as well, for better or for worse.
Annie: Yes, it’s an extreme case but I think it shows something that’s in all of us. I mean, I joke around when it’s a Saturday and I don’t have anything scheduled in the morning and I somehow still wake up at 7:30 in the morning and I’ll make a joke that my 18-year-old self would be horrified.
Hal Hershfield: Totally.
Annie: I think that it’s got that similar feel. The other thing I would say is it feels like we do use that idea that you can become a fundamentally different person in terms of things like if you’re an alcoholic and you go to AA, isn’t that a lot of the messaging? That you don’t need to be who you were before, that you can be somebody new?
Hal Hershfield: Absolutely. In that way I think it can be comforting. You can look at these identity breaks in either an existentially terrifying way (“Oh my God, what’s consistent about me?”) or in a positive and almost affirming way (“I can become a different version of me”). And you can go deeper and say, “I can become a different version of me in certain regards.” The alcoholism example is great. I don’t think anybody’s saying you should change everything about you, but in that particular case, everything about you that’s related to this thing that’s maladaptive.
I’ll just give the business analogy. When companies rebrand, it doesn’t mean that they change everything. They try to figure out what’s the asset that they can pull through, but then what are the things that we need to switch up that will help us?
Annie: Thank you so much for your time. I know everyone will love the new book as much as I did!