Thursday, August 23, 2012

Will Your Future Self Be Happy with Your Present Self?

In his wonderful book, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert describes many fascinating experiments that show the fickleness of humans.  If you are one, read on!  Daniel Gilbert is a social psychologist at Harvard and he specializes in studying emotion and pleasure (and, he’s stumbled onto happiness as well.  Link to his site at Harvard.). 

One of the experiments that he loves to talk about was conducted by Ratner, Kahn, and Kahneman, and was published in 1999, with the title “Choosing Less-Preferred Experiences for the Sake of Variety.”  That’s one example Gilbert uses of a series of studies that basically show this fact (using Gilbert’s brilliant way of putting it):  Your present self very often makes decisions that your present self thinks your future self will appreciate that, when the time comes, will not be appreciated by your future self. 

Some of you are already thinking, “tell me about it. I’ve got quite a story for you on this one, buddy!”  Well, my name is Scott, not Stacey or Buddy (Ting Tings time), but yes, I do bet some of you are thinking right now that you have lived this story too well.

Thanks to

Here’s the simple type research finding.  Gilbert has a flair for presenting this type of stuff, so I’ll use his type of example.  You win 12 meals, once a month, at your favorite restaurant in town. The catch is that the restaurant owner asks you to pre-order your 12 meals, so she can feature in you winning this prize in ads and flyers, and show off the wisdom of your selections.  Gilbert focused his example on the entree but allow me to focus on dessert.  It’s a gift. After you have chosen the other aspects of your menu for the coming year, you focus in on the dessert.  This restaurant is eclectic, and they offer a variety.  Among the items offered is some chocolate-lava-cake-thing with the word “decadence” in the name.  Just sayin. They also offer tiramisu, apple crumb cake, blueberry cobbler, cherries jubilee (flame on!), chocolate mousse, and something called “dessert cheeses with fruit.”  Oh, they also have some world famous bread pudding.  You know you love chocolate but you have heard that all the desserts are amazing. Quality will not be the issue.  

What’s the average current self to choose? In a word, he or she tends to choose variety in this context. You can contrive this scenario various ways if you are a social psychologist, but the basic point is that people tend to think their future selves should eat healthier than they actually will want to, and that their future selves will appreciate variety.  In my case, on any given night, among those choices, I’d want the chocolate lava cake. Hands down (on fork and spoon). I’d take that if it were served to me virtually any night of the week, and I’d gain a lot of weight. This is especially true for me if the chef has serious chocolate skills and knows how not to mess up chocolate.  While it mystifies me and my wife, we do know some dessert chefs have an amazing ability to produce brown desserts that have the word “chocolate” in their title that blow the whole chocolate concept.  Really, that’s quite sad.  Every bit of chocolate ever made should have a fulfilled future for it’s own future self—from a little bean to a dessert going into your mouth.

from ReadySetEat

Back to my winning this prize; somehow, in writing down my 12 meals for the ensuing 12 months, I only pick the lava cake 4 times, and, even more remarkably, that cheese and fruit thing shows up in my order 3 times.  Three times! Seriously, Scott? My present self tends to think my future self will be happy to be eating more healthy food from time to time, and at least the fruit part sounds healthy (it’s still all sugar and fat, but let’s move on).  Turns out, every time I come in for my meals in the coming year, and it’s dessert time—EVERY TIME—my future self who shows up wants the chocolate lava cake.  Every meal ends with this depressing sense that “I could have had the lava cake.” I learn that I always have with me, my inner self, who is the same one who most often comes out of Seven Eleven with Hostess Chocolate CupCakes.  (Side point: These are nearly as good as any pastry chef is going to ever come up with. Again, just sayin.) 

The lesson as Gilbert puts it so well is that our present self is always making decisions for our future self—decisions that our future self will have to live with. Worse, our present self is often just so sure what our future self is going to be happy about. This is why Gilbert’s very seriously excellent research in this area is called “affective forecasting.” He studies how good we are at predicting what will make our future self happy. It’s a big deal.   

Let’s imagine some things our present self could get wrong, in writing checks our future self might not be happy to be cashing:

- a major in college

- a career path

- a choice in a partner (for example, being convinced that one always likes being with a thrill-seeker cause it’s been so fun on occasion)

- a tattoo 

I’m not just talking about garden variety regrets and consequences, but I think it’s especially interesting to think about how your future self will like what your present self has chosen for you—and also, how your future self is going to feel about ways in life that your present self is, right now, letting something slide that is going to turn out to life altering experience that carries with it substantial negative feelings. 

Chew on that for a bit and next time, I’ll have more specific thoughts about partner choices.