You Make Better Decisions If You “See” Your Senior Self

By Hal Hershfield

Subjects exposed to aged avatars put nearly twice as much money into the retirement fund as the other people.

The finding: Many people feel disconnected from the individuals they’ll be in the future and, as a result, discount rewards that would later benefit them. But brief exposure to aged images of the self can change that behavior.

The research: Hal Hershfield ran fMRI scans on subjects and found that the neural patterns seen when they described themselves 10 years in the future were markedly different from those seen when they described their current selves (but similar to those seen when they talked about actors). In a later asset allocation task, people whose brain activity changed the most when they began discussing their future selves were the least likely to favor large long-term gains over small immediate ones. However, in follow-up experiments, when subjects were shown aged images of themselves, that tendency disappeared.

The challenge: Do we really think of our older selves as strangers? And can digitally altered photos really improve our judgment? Professor Hershfield, defend your research.

Hershfield: This study, which I did with G. Elliott Wimmer and Brian Knutson at Stanford, was the first to use fMRI technology to document the disconnect people feel with their future selves. But it built on existing research.

Read full article as published in Harvard Business Review.