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Psychological connectedness to the future self

Dr. Simon Moss

Overview

The concept of psychological connectedness emanated from the work of Derek Parfit (1984). Specifically, most individuals recognize their identity, including their personality, interests, values, goals, and beliefs, changes across time. Some people feel their identity, however, only changes marginally across time. They feel quite connected to their future self, representing high levels of psychological connectedness. Other people feel their identity will change dramatically over time. They do not feel as connected to their future self, representing low levels of psychological connectedness, sometimes described as discontinuity with their future self.

Because of this disconnection or discontinuity with the future, some individuals are not willing to sacrifice their immediate needs to enhance their future. They are, consequently, more inclined to be impulsive& they tend to yield to temptations . Therefore, they do not consider the future consequences of their actions (Hershfield, Cohen, & Thompson, 2012& see consideration of future consequences). They also tend to behave unethically and deceptively (Hershfield, Cohen, & Thompson, 2012).

Interrelated decisions

Sheldon and Fishbach (2015) described another mechanism that could explain the benefits of connectedness to the future, especially the effect of this connectedness on ethical decision making. In particular, when people feel connected to the future, they do not perceive all their decisions as isolated or independent from one another. Instead, they feel that many of their decisions are interdependent. Their decisions therefore seem more consequential.

For example, suppose that individuals need to decide whether or not to lie. If connected to the future, they recognize they are not merely deciding about whether to lie in this instance. They are, to some extent, deciding whether to lie in general, and this decision seems more consequential. They become more inclined to recognize that unethical choices now could affect their choices in the future and this influence the lives of many people, in many situations. So, they are more inclined to eschew unethical choices.

Consequences and correlates of discontinuity with the future self

Temporal discounting and delayed gratification

If psychological connectedness is high, individuals will tend to value their future needs. They know their motives now will also apply later in life. Consequently, they are likely to prefer $150 in one year rather than $100 now. If psychological connectedness is low, individuals will prioritize their immediate needs over their future goals. They might, for example, prefer $100 now than $150 in one year, sometimes referred to as high temporal discounting.

Bartels and Urminsky (2011) undertook a series of studies to verify the role of psychological connectedness in discounting future needs. In the first two studies, individuals received one of two passages. One passage implied their core identity is likely to fluctuate considerably over the next few years. The other passage implied their core identity will be stable over this period. Next, they were granted a choice to decide whether they would prefer $120 now or some higher amount, such as $154, a year later. If participants had been informed their identity is unstable, they preferred money now over a significant amount more one year later. They felt limited connection to their identity one year later and, therefore, did not want to sacrifice money now to assist this future self. Study 3 was similar, except a different procedure was utilized to manipulate psychological connectedness.

Additional studies further verified this conclusion. For example, Study 4 showed that psychological connectedness affects the discount rate over time and does not merely direct attention to the present instead of the future. In Study 5, participants completed a trait measure of psychological connectedness. For example, they indicated the extent to which their identity now will overlap with their identity later. This measure correlated with discount rates over time, even after controlling other variables, such as predictions of future happiness (for similar findings, see Bartels and Rips, 2010).

Likewise,Ersner-Hershfield, Garton, Ballard, Samanez-Larkin, and Knutson (2009) showed that a sense of continuity and connection to the future self also facilitates saving. If individuals feel their identity now will overlap considerably with their identity in the future, they tend to accumulate more financial assets, even after controlling age and education.

Unethical behavior

The degree to which individuals feel connected to their future selves also predicts ethical behavior. For example, if people feel their self now does not overlap considerably to their self in the future, they are more likely to endorse unethical and expedient behavior (Hershfield, Cohen, & Thompson, 2012). They are more inclined to lie when such deception could benefit them immediately (Hershfield, Cohen, & Thompson, 2012). They are also more likely to cheat, even after controlling the six key dimensions of personality (Hershfield, Cohen, & Thompson, 2012).

Experimental studies also confirm that a feeling of connection with the future self fosters ethical behavior. In one study, conducted by Hershfield, Cohen, and Thompson (2012), some participants were asked to reflect upon the likely similarities between themselves now and themselves 10 years in the future. Other participants, in the control group, were asked to reflect upon the world, instead of themselves, ten years in the future. After imagining their similarities 10 years in the future, individuals were not as likely to endorse unethical behavior during negotiations.

Presumably, when individuals feel connected to the future, they are more attuned to the future implications of their behavior. They tend to refrain from expedient behaviors--behaviors that tend to culminate in problems in the future.

Delinquency

Similarly, van Gelder, Hershfield, and Nordgren (2013) posited that individuals who feel a sense of disconnection to the future may be more likely to engage in delinquent behaviors. Delinquent behaviors often elicit positive emotions now but regret later. If people are not as concerned about the future consequences of their behavior, but instead seem immediate pleasure, they are thus more inclined to enact delinquent behaviors.

According to van Gelder, Hershfield, and Nordgren (2013), if this premise is true, initiatives that increase the extent to which individuals feel connected to the future should diminish the incidence of delinquency. For example, exercises that augment the degree to which the future seems vivid should fulfill this aim. When people feel that images of their future are vivid, the consequences of their actions seem more real and intense. van Gelder, Hershfield, and Nordgren (2013) indeed showed that such exercises do inhibit delinquent behavior.

Specifically, in one study, some participants, all of whom were young adults, were granted five minutes to write a letter to themselves 20 years in the future, comprising 200 to 300 words. They wrote about which topics are important and dear to them now and how they feel about their life. In the control condition, participants instead wrote a letter to themselves 3 months in the future. Next, they received a series of scenarios, designed to assess their inclination to engage in delinquent behavior. For example, in one scenario, participants needed to decide whether they would agree to purchase a laptop that had actually been stolen. The other scenarios related to illegal downloading, theft, insurance fraud, and so forth. If participants wrote a letter to themselves 20 years in the future, they were less inclined to agree to delinquent or unethical behavior.

The second study utilized immersive virtual reality to enable participants to interact with their future self. Participants were able to interact with a variant of themselves that looks older in age. In particular, in a room was a mirror. Projected onto this mirror was an older or current version of themselves. Next, participants completed a task in which they were granted an opportunity to cheat. After they observed an older variant of themselves, participants were less inclined to cheat.

Consideration of future consequences

Indeed, the extent to which people feel connected to their future self has also shown to be associated with consideration of future consequences. That is, if people feel their self now and their self 10 years in the future overlap considerably, they are more likely to consider future outcomes while they contemplate decisions (Hershfield, Cohen, & Thompson, 2012).

Manipulations and measures of psychological connectedness to the future self

Priming similarity or dissimilarity to the future

A variety of methods have been utilized to manipulate or prime psychological connectedness or discontinuity with the future self. For example, in one of the studies conducted by Hershfield, Cohen, and Thompson (2012), some participants were asked to reflect upon the likely similarities between themselves now and themselves 10 years in the future. This exercise presumably reinforces a sense of connection with the future self. Awareness of similarities with the future self fostered ethical beliefs.

In contrast, in one of the studies that was conducted by Bartels and Urminsky (2011) , some participants were instructed to judge how readily they could identify two reasons their identity would remain stable over the next year. Because two reasons can be readily retrieved, these individuals, inadvertently, form the assumption that many other reasons could be retrieved as well. They will, therefore, presume their identity would remain stable (for evidence of this rationale, see ease of retrieval). Other participants were instructed to judge how readily they could identify ten reasons their identity would remain stable over the next year. This task is difficult, and hence participants question whether their identity will be steady over time. As this procedure showed, when psychological connectedness was limited, individuals preferred money now to more significant amounts of money in the future.

Furthermore, van Gelder, Hershfield, and Nordgren (2013) developed another manipulation of future connectedness. To promote future connectedness, participants were granted five minutes to write a letter to themselves 20 years in the future, comprising 200 to 300 words. They wrote about which topics are important and dear to them now and how they feel about their life. In the control condition, participants instead wrote a letter to themselves 3 months in the future. A connection to the future did indeed reduce the inclination of individuals to engage in unethical behavior.

Finally, in other studies conducted by Bartels and Urminsky (2011), some participants read a passage that core identity is likely to fluctuate considerably over the next few years. Other participants read a passage that implied their core identity will be stable over this period, a passage that decreased temporal discounting.

Measures of psychological connectedness to the future self

The most common measure to gauge whether people feel connected or disconnected to their future self was developed by Ersner-Hershfield, Garton, Ballard, Samanez-Larkin, and Knutson (2009) and utilized by Hershfield, Cohen, and Thompson (2012). In particular, seven pairs of circles, with varying levels of overlap, are presented. For each pair, one circle represents the identity of participants now. The other circle represents the identity of participants 10 years in the future. Participants specify which of these pairs represented the extent to which their identity now overlaps with their identity in the future. As this method shows, psychological connectedness to the future diminishes temporal discounting and increases the capacity of individuals to save assets (for insights on the neural underpinnings, see Ersner-Hershfield, Wimmer, & Knutson, 2009.

Antecedents of psychological connectedness to the future self

A sense of power

Some people, occasionally, experience a sense of power. They feel they can influence other people. They also do not feel they are constrained by the whims of other individuals. In this state, individuals tend to feel more connected to their future identity, diminishing the magnitude of temporal discounting.

According to Joshi and Fast (2013), two mechanisms could underpin this association between a sense of power and connection to the future. First, when individuals experience power, they feel they can control their environment more effectively. They do not feel as vulnerable or uncertain, and their future seems more certain. Indeed, events that seem more certain are perceived as closer in time (Bar-Anan, Liberman, Trope, & Algom, 2007& Wakslak, 2012). Consequently, if people feel a sense of power, their future image of themselves seems more certain, closer in time, and thus connected to their existing identity. Second, when people experience a sense of power, they adopt an abstract construal (see construal level theory), in which they are sensitive to global patterns instead of specific details. As their need to focus on details diminishes, they become more inclined to consider their future self--a representation that is devoid of details.

Joshi and Fast (2013) conducted a series of studies that vindicate these arguments. In the first study, participants completed a sequence of tasks, such as a general knowledge test, in groups. Some but not all participants were assigned the role of manager, instilling a sense of power. After they were assigned this role, but before they began the tasks, all participants completed a measure of temporal discounting. If participants were assigned a position of power, temporal discounting diminished. They were, for example, especially inclined to prefer $1200 in one year than $1000 now.

The second study showed that a connection to the future mediated this association between power and diminished temporal discounting. That is, after participants recalled a time in which they were granted power, they were more likely to feel their identity now overlaps with their identity in 10 years. This overlap was associated with diminished temporal discounting.

Heightened physiological needs

When physiological needs are heightened, such as when hunger or sexual urges are primed, people do not feel as connected to either themselves in the future or to other people. For example, in some of the studies, half the male participants were exposed to images of sexy women. Other male participants were exposed to images of beautiful landscapes or women who were not especially sexy. Next, the degree to which these men felt connected to other people, themselves in 10 years, and themselves in 30 years was assessed. For example, they rated, on a 100 point scale, the degree to which they felt similar or connected to another person, such as a best friend or acquaintance, or to their future self. If exposed to sexual images, people felt more similar or connected to both other individuals and to their future identity. Hunger also generated a similar pattern of results.

This sense of connection affected a range of other decisions as well. For example, after individuals were exposed to sexy images, they were more interested in products that benefit themselves now than anyone else.

Arguably, when individuals experience powerful visceral cues, their attention is confined to information that could diminish these cues, including bodily sensations rather than abstract goals. They will, therefore, overlook broader considerations, such as the needs of other people or their own goals in the future.

Time metrics

Arguably, the future, if described as years rather than days away, tends to seem farther away (Lewis & Oyserman, 2015). For example, in one study, participants read a series of scenarios, like "Jane is shopping for a present for her friend's birthday party. When do you think the party is? They were asked to specify the answer in days or months. If the answer was specified in days, instead of months, participants assumed the event was sooner.

In another study, participants imagined they were parents, and one of their children was likely to begin college in 18 years or 6570 days. Next, they were asked to indicate when they should begin saving for the tuition fees, either in years or days--as well as to indicate the degree to which their future and current self are similar. Participants wanted to save earlier if the unit of time was days instead of years. Connection to the future mediated this relationship.

Events that intervene between the present and future self

When individuals imagine important, or even mundane, events that intervene between themselves now and their future identity, they are more inclined to experience a sense of dislocation from the future. That is, these events seem to separate or split these two identities. Consequently, if individuals want to experience a sense of connection to their future--perhaps because they have contemplated a desirable state in the future--they may become less inclined to contemplate events that intervene between this present and future identity.

Peetz and Wilson (2013) conducted a series of studies that verify this premise. In one study, participants were instructed to reflect upon a negative or neutral possibility that could unfold in six months. Next, they were granted an opportunity to discuss a forthcoming holiday, such as Independence Day. If participants had imagined a negative possibility that could arise in six months, they were more inclined to discuss a holiday that is celebrated within this time. That is, they oriented their attention to an event that intervened between themselves now and a negative future identity.

Subsequent studies replicated and extended this finding. For example, the same pattern of observations unfolded when the time frame was changed to 6 weeks instead of 6 months. In addition, these findings were especially pronounced whenever participants were encouraged to describe themselves positively, reflecting a self-enhancement motive. Accordingly, the motivation of people to perceive themselves positively may underpin this tendency to detach themselves from undesirable states in the future.

The essential moral self hypothesis

According to the essential moral self hypothesis, moral capabilities and qualities are the most central feature of identity (Strohminger & Nichols, 2014). Consequently, changes in moral capabilities and qualities, such as sympathy or compliance, should transform the identity of people.

This possibility was verified by Strohminger and Nichols (2015). In this study, the participants were carers of a relative or friend with a neurogenerative disorder: specifically, Alzheimer's Disease, frontal temporal dementia, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease. They completed a measure that gauges the personality of these patients. In addition, they answered questions that assess the degree to which they feel the identity of this person has changed since the disease, with items like "Do you feel like you still know who the patient is".

If the patients had changed in personality qualities that relate to morality or virtue, such as dishonesty or impaired empathy-common in frontal temporal dementia-participants felt the identity of these individuals had shifted. In contrast, if the patients had changed in personality qualities that do not relate to morality or virtue, such as ambition, participants felt the identity of these individuals had not shifted.

These results indicate that, when the moral qualities of individuals shift, other people feel the identity of these individuals has shifted. However, whether individuals feel their own identity has shifted when their morality changes warrants further research. Preliminary research indicates this effect persists when individuals evaluate their own identity but to a lesser extent (Heiphetz, Strohminger, & Young, 2015, cited in Strohminger & Nichols, 2015).

Related concepts

Collective futures framework

The collective futures framework highlights the effects that could unfold after individuals reflect upon potential social changes (Bain, Hornsey, Bongiorno, Kashima, & Crimston, 2013). That is, great leaders often attempt to convey an inspiring vision of the future. The might refer to changes in the conditions that influence society, such as globalization or climate change. They might refer to changes in the composition and power of various communities, such as religious, ethnic, or political groups. Or they might refer to changes in fiscal or social policies.

After they reflect upon these possibilities, individuals assume that features of society or people might differ. For example, societal changes could include developments in the rate of crime, inequality, education, or technology. Changes in people could include variations in character, such as warmth, competence, and morality, or values. Interestingly, these assumed changes could affect the behavior or attitudes of individuals today.

Specifically, in this research, if participants were informed the future will be more benevolent?-that is, warm or moral, evoked by possibilities like the legalization of abortion and marijuana or the mitigation of climate change?-they were more inclined to endorse behaviors that facilitate these changes (Bain, Hornsey, Bongiorno, Kashima, & Crimston, 2013). In contrast, if people were informed the future will be less benevolent, they were less inclined to endorse behaviors that facilitate these changes. In other words, if politicians can show how their policies could promote benevolence, they are more likely to attract support towards their policies.

Four facets of future time perspective

Husman and Shell (2008) argued that beliefs about the future can be divided into four constellations: connectedness, extension, speed, and value. According to Husman and Shell (2008), connectedness refers to the tendency of individuals to relate their ongoing activities to future goals. In particular, connectedness entails two features: a concern about the future and plans to translate ongoing activities to future goals.

Extension refers to how far a person projects their thoughts. For example, some people may be guided by an extensive time horizon, perhaps lasting months or even years. All events within this time horizon seem relatively near rather than distant. Past measures, however, do not differentiate dreams and goals. That is, people may experience dreams that relate to their future, but these dreams, unlike goals, may not shape their decisions. Joshi and Fast (2013) utilized this subscale to measure psychological connectedness to the future.

Speed refers to the velocity with which time seems to be passing. That is, if time seems to be passing very slowly, the future seems especially remote. Finally, value refers to the extent to which immediate needs are perceived as more important than future goals, or vice versa, analogous to temporal discounting.

Husman and Shell (2008) developed a scale that measures these four facets of future time perspective, derived from a variety of other scales. The measures of connectedness, extension, speed, and value comprised 12 items (e.g., "One should be taking steps today to help realize future goals"), 5 items, (e.g., "In general, six months seems like a very short period of time"), 3 items ("I need to feel rushed before I can really get going"), and 7 items respectively ("Given the choice, it is better to get something you want in the future than something you want today"). Cronbach's alpha for these subscales ranged from .72 to .82. Confirmatory factor analysis substantiated the four factors, GFI=0.93, NNFI=0.94, NFI=0.84, and CFI=0.94.

Expectation of remaining in the same job

A recent concept, called expectation of remaining in the same job, is related to psychological connectedness to the future. Rather than a connection to future identity, expectation of remaining in the same job concerns the degree to which people feel connected to their future job. To illustrate, in one study, Liebermann, Wegge, and Muller (2012) asked participants to indicate the degree to which they could imagine themselves in the same job until their official retirement age. The options were "I cannot picture that", "I can picture that with restrictions", and "I can picture that".

Liebermann, Wegge, and Muller (2012) examined the conditions that are likely to promote or impede this expectation of remaining in the same job. Specifically, participants also answered questions that relate to resources at work, including social support, variety, and appreciation from other people, as well as the degree to which the job is demanding. Finally, they received questions about their health and age.

In general, resources at work, such as social support and variety, were positively, and demands were negatively, associated with expectation of remaining in the same job. In older blue-color workers, health was especially related to this expectation& in younger blue color workers, job demands were especially related to this expectation. In younger white collar workers, resources were particularly related to this expectation.

Presumably, job demands evoke a sense of exhaustion, diminishing the motivation, and hence the tendency, of people to imagine themselves working in this job in the future. In contrast, job resources evoke a sense of autonomous motivation, enabling people to more readily persist in this role.

Self-continuity

Self-continuity reflects the extent to which individuals perceive themselves as an entity that extends into the past and future, as defined by Chandler (1994). That is, if individuals experience self-continuity, they feel their personal identity is enduring, despite perturbations in their environment (see also Chandler, Lalonde, Sokol, & Hallett, 2003). This sense of continuity enables individuals to recognize how their experiences now are relevant to their future, fostering motivation and direction.

According to several scholars, discontinuity of the self may undermine resilience and provoke maladaptive coping styles (Zimbardo, 1999). Indeed, Sadeh and Karniol (2012) showed that self-continuity is associated with adaptive, rather than maladaptive, coping styles, especially in unemployed individuals. In this study, 211 participants, many of whom were unemployed, completed a questionnaire. They were asked to indicate whether 25 descriptions, like "I am confident", accurately reflect who they are in the past, in the future, and now. Similar responses across these three times were assumed to reflect self-continuity. In addition, participants indicated how they coped with difficulties. Coping strategies included adaptive, active behaviors--like solving problems, formulating plans, reconceptualising the problem, and seeking emotional support--or avoidant, dismissive behaviors--like acting as though nothing was wrong and hoping that a miracle would unfold.

Self-continuity, or perceived consistency across time, was positively associated with adaptive, active coping styles but negatively associated with avoidant, dismissive coping styles. Accordingly, self-continuity may enable people to copy with job loss and other problems more effectively. Presumably, when people experience a sense of self-continuity, they recognize that problems are temporary. They feel confident they can prevail, increasing their sense of self-efficacy, and inspiring these individuals to resolve their problems or emotions actively.

Yet, as Sadeh and Karniol (2012) also showed, major transitions in life, such as job loss, tend to curb self-continuity. That is, compared to individuals who had not recently experience a job loss, individuals who had recently experienced a job loss exhibited lower levels of self-continuity. They perceived their past, present, and future selves as appreciably different from each other.

Construction of future thoughts

To experience a sense of connection to the future, individuals need to construct an image or vision of their future life. D'Argembeau and Mathy (2013) undertook a series of studies that were intended to explore how people construct this image of the future. In essence, they showed that individuals can more readily construct these images after overarching personal goals are primed.

In the first study, participants were exposed to a series of words, such as garden, mother, sad, or friend. After observing each word, participants were asked to describe a specific event this cue evokes that had either unfolded in the past or could plausibly unfold in the future. In addition, while relating these stories, participants were also asked to articulate aloud every thought that was evoked in their mind. Judges then rated the degree to which each description was abstract--unrelated to specific events but applicable across time--or concrete and pertinent to a specific time. An abstract example is "I am thinking about one of my teenage friends". A concrete example is "I will visit John on Saturday?.

Interestingly, when participants attempted to depict future events, they initially referred to more abstract knowledge about themselves. Even descriptions of past events often began with thoughts about abstract, personal knowledge--although not as frequently as did descriptions of future events. The time that was needed to construct future events was longer than was the time need to construct past events& presumably, individuals must combine novel features of past events to construct future events.

The second study showed the personal information that precedes the depiction of future events often revolves around personal goals. That is, in this study, participants were instructed to generate as many future events as they could in a minute. In particular, they were asked to depict events that relate to personal goals--projects or achievements that relate to work, relationships, leisure, and so forth--familiar friends, or specific locations. Participants could more readily generate events that relate to personal goals or achievements than specific friends or locations. As the final study showed, after people had been primed with these personal goals, they could more readily generate other future events as well.

In short, these findings show that attempts to construct future events are not derived solely from episodic memory but are also derived from personal, semantic knowledge. This semantic knowledge guides the retrieval, integration, and interpretation of episodic details.

References

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Last Update: 6/14/2012