How do we get people to care about the future?

The impulse toward instant gratification—get it while you can!—seems to be hardwired, part of our evolutionary heritage. Beneficial in the Neolithic era, perhaps, but now . . . I don’t have to fill in the details for you. This difficulty with putting the future first seriously threatens individual health, societal health, and our very survival as a species.

Any organization working for change is up against this behavioral wall. As is, for that matter, any one of us for whom the cake or shiny object we want right now is more real than our ultimate health or savings goals. How do we get past the shortsighted numbskull within? Brains studies suggest some answers.

Problem: temporal discounting

Part of the problem is what scientists call temporal discounting: we tend to see small, immediate rewards as more desirable than big payoffs that will come later. Even payoffs like, say, a planet that can support human life.

“Because the rewards for our good behavior are off in the future where they seem less important, we are almost guaranteed to often act against our own interests,” says Lauren Dube, a psychology and marketing researcher at McGill University, in a Scientific American Mind article by David H. Freedman (March/April 2013).

Brain scans indicate that this “get it now” drive originates in areas of the brain dedicated to emotion (the limbic system), rewards, and impulsivity. Thoughtful decisions appear to happen elsewhere, namely the prefrontal cortex—home to “executive functions” like working memory, attention, and inhibition. The trick is to get the prefrontal cortex to kick in.

The Sci Mind article goes into a number of ways to thwart temporal discounting, but a couple of them caught my attention for their potential application to communications.

Make the consequences detailed and personal

Our brains find the future vague. General statements about consequences don’t change that. But specific information about effects—especially those that concern a given individual—seems to get the attention of the prefrontal cortex.

Freedman cites a behavioral health clinic that asks obese clients to document the consequences of “slipping”—exactly how much weight they gain and how long it takes it lose it. It’s a detailed, individualized exercise. The clinic finds that for these clients, the downsides of overeating become more real. You might say they wake up to the future.

How might this work on a larger scale? (No pun intended there.) Let’s take climate change. Might campaigns be more effective if they were tailored to regions? In the Southwest United States, data on the size and frequency of wildfires will have real salience. In New England, the possibility that autumn colors may become a thing of the past is cause for deep mourning. Tuvalu drowning? Horrible! But too abstract to make me cry (most days).

Evoke the future self as “him” or “her”

According to the Sci Mind article, some psychologists speculate that temporal discounting is so strong because we don’t like imagining ourselves as old. A psychologist and a marketing researcher got together and did a study that subverted this by having people think not of “you,” but rather of a third-person future self, “she.”

“When you evoke people’s moral obligation to take care of a future self who is dependent on them, in the same way we take care of our children and elderly parents, they make better choices,” said psychologist Christopher J. Bryan of the University of California, San Diego.

Let’s see, then: There she is, your future self. She’s old. She’s looking back at you from amid a drab and dying stand of maples, asking, “Why?” Or she’s looking back at you, smiling, amid trees so ablaze it takes your breath away (hers too). It’s up to you.

Damn. Fourth-generation Yankee that I am, that works for me (sniff).

Scientific American Mind is available by subscription only. See David H. Freedman, “Time-Warping Temptations,” Scientific American Mind, March/April 2013, pp. 45-49.

(Photo courtesy of Lindsey Gira via Creative Commons.)


  1. “How do we get people to care about the future?”

    I would think that to care about the future, one has to first care about the present — ie. about what one is doing right now. IOW, a focus on morality.

    The problem is that in a society that wishes to be egalitarian and democratic, it is taboo to focus on morality, given the pressure to think that “anything goes, and every outlook on life must be allowed.”

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