Photo courtesy of 604 Plonker at Flickr.com.
We often make poor decisions about the future. When we buy cars, choose careers, or plan dinner, people are often motivated by short term goals and overlook long term implications. We buy cheap cars that waste gas, gravitate toward high risk jobs with the hope of big rewards, and choose tasty meals that are horrible for our bodies. In short, we make many decisions that are penny wise, but pound foolish.
Why do we do this? Is it a cultural thing, or something hard-wired into all humans? There’s good reason to believe that evolution is responsible. The decisions that promote our immediate survival and reproduction are rewarded, while decisions that promote long term success aren’t. After all, long term success depends on the sum of all of our choices – the effects of long term decisions are muted and we subsequently discount the rewards.
In fact, long term planning skills often go against the grain. Making sacrifices now can prevent us from having kids and passing on our genes. Saving food for the winter is a good long-term plan, but a layer of fat would be more useful if someone is going to steal our food. Everyone wants to find their soul mate before having children (especially if that soul mate happens to be a rich supermodel), but what if we get hit by a bus tomorrow?
Hal Ersner-Hershfield of the Stanford Center on Longevity has some interesting findings:
Hal Ersner-Hershfield, a fifth-year psychology grad student in Carstensen’s lab, is working on a way to help young people make better decisions about planning for retirement. It’s based on his work using functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans that first demonstrated that, when people are asked to imagine themselves in retirement, the parts of their brains that usually “light up” when they think about themselves don’t light up at all. It’s as if they were thinking about a stranger.
So, if our future selves are strangers to us, why should we make good long-term decisions? Think about it – are you the kind of person who makes financial sacrifices and then gives the money away to random people on the street?
This has big implications for the environment. Environmental policy requires thoughtful long-term decision making, and it offers few immediate rewards. Sacrifices are concentrated among a few companies, but the benefits are distributed across the entire planet. Finding a way to get people to relate to the effects of their actions is a major challenge. The good news is that Hal Ersner-Hershfield found a way to change people’s behavior. He showed test subjects digitally aged pictures of themselves in the mirror and then gave them $1,000 to spend however they liked. Subjects who had “seen the future” chose to invest more of that money than the control group. So, the trick is finding a way to clearly illustrate how climate change can affect the world.
Here’s what our future might look like unless we change course:
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