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Great Expectations: New insights into how and why we think about the future

What do you expect to be doing in five seconds? Five months? Five decades? Thinking about the future is a form of mental time travel at which humans are uniquely skilled. Psychologists call it prospection or future-mindedness, and some have argued it offers an invaluable framework for understanding topics ranging from perception, cognition, imagination, and memory to free will and consciousness itself. In a 2013 paper — later expanded into the book Homo Prospectus — University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman and co-authors Peter Railton, Roy F. Baumeister, and Chandra Sripada suggest that prospection is “a core organizing principle of animal and human behavior” offering a framework for understanding much of psychology. In their view, psychologists have tended to focus on how people’s memories of past events affect their current mental states. But doing so meant that research had neglected the extent to which our expectations for the future affect our present experiences and actions. In 2014, with financial support from the John Templeton Foundation, Seligman and his co-authors oversaw the distribution of $2.3 million in grants across 18 research projects designed to significantly increase our understanding of what prospection is and how it functions. Recently, the Templeton Foundation commissioned an independent white paper to analyze the results of this research alongside other work on future-mindedness, bringing together insights from a total of 167 works. The current state of prospection research demonstrates that the ways we think and talk about the future has significant and sometimes counterintuitive effects on the ways we think, feel, and behave in the present.

MENTAL IMAGES, INNER SPEECH

Humans aren’t the only species that can make predictions about the future. A dog might get excited when it sees its owner holding a leash, anticipating a walk in the near future, and there’s evidence that animals ranging from ravens to orangutans can select and save tools for later use. But the human ability to think about the future extends beyond that of other animals, allowing us to think about and plan for the distant future, and to make predictions about our individual futures based on what we’ve learned from other people’s experiences.

We think about the future a lot. One study of social media posts found that around 15 percent of messages mentioned the future, while a different study that asked people to write what they were thinking the last time their mind had wandered found that 43 percent of the sentences concerned the future.

Research suggests that prospection is intimately tied to memory. One study found that people asked to envision specific future events occurring in a familiar setting (such as their home) reported imagining more sensory details than people asked to describe the same event occurring in an unfamiliar setting (such as the North Pole). This may help explain why near-future imaginings are often more vivid than thoughts of the distant future. Compared to imagining our lives next week, picturing a distant future is likelier to involve a different context — a different job, house, partner, or even a different version of ourselves.

HOW PROSPECTION HELPS US

Being able to imagine our future is such an important part of human life that it’s difficult to envision how we would function without it. One of the most fundamental uses of prospection is in evaluating which actions to take or to avoid. Studies in rats and humans have examined the parts of the brain used in navigation, highlighting the close connection between remembering locations and simulating expected actions. One study observed rats’ spatial-memory-related brain cells activating as the animals mentally tested potential new paths through a landscape before deciding which one to attempt physically.  

Beyond simpler tasks like planning routes, multiple studies have shown that how we think about the future (and about our future selves) can influence all kinds of decisions. People often pass over choices that would benefit them in the long run in favor of choices that offer smaller but more immediate rewards, a phenomenon known as “delay discounting.” One set of experiments found that people who thought of their present and future selves as psychologically similar were more willing to wait for a larger reward further in the future. Other studies have found that vividly imagining a possible future event can counteract the tendency to discount future rewards. For example, in one British study, participants primed by vividly imagining spending £35 at a pub six months from the present exhibited less delay discounting than those who had been primed by simply estimating what they thought could be purchased with £35.

Another way to bring the future closer is simply to use language that makes the future seem nearer: one study found that manipulating how subjects thought about the time until their retirement (counting it down in days rather than years) caused them to plan to start saving for retirement sooner.

PROSPECTION AND MOTIVATION

Goal-setting is an inherently future-oriented action, and once goals have been set, prospection can strongly affect the ways people work towards those goals. Interestingly, and perhaps counterintuitively, research has found that the more people fantasize about successfully reaching their goals, the less effort they actually put into realizing them. One study found that people who fantasized more positively about successfully losing weight went on to lose less weight than those who had fewer weight-loss fantasies. As one reviewer put it, such positive fantasies “lead people to mentally enjoy the desired future in the here and now, and thus curb investment and future success.”

Fantasies can, however, be turned into goal-directed behavior if we contrast them with our current reality in ways that allow us to see challenges as barriers that can be overcome. When people expect to succeed at something, considering the aspects of their current reality that impede their goals can energize them to overcome those barriers. Multiple studies have found that this type of mental contrasting can help people achieve their goals, whether losing weight, developing better exercise habits, or getting better grades.

BENEFICIAL FUTURES

The positive uses of prospection do not seem to be limited to goals like personal health or success; there may be social benefits as well. One study found that adopting a more future-oriented view about a relationship conflict — by reflecting on what participants thought they would think of the conflict a year later — led participants to express more “adaptive reasoning” about the conflict: They blamed their partner less, showed greater insight about how the conflict impacted their relationship in a constructive and positive way, and demonstrated greater forgiveness.

Research also shows how prospection helps people pursue happiness (albeit imperfectly). In particular, a body of work suggests that human behavior is often guided by how we think we will feel in the future. In one study where participants were told that they had taken a pill that froze their mood for one hour (actually a placebo), people who were sad and people who were happy ate roughly the same amount of snacks. In the control group, where participants believed that their moods were still changeable, the sad participants ate more snacks, presumably because they thought it would make them feel better.

However, research also suggests that when people think about how they are likely to feel in the future, they don’t always make correct predictions. People are better at remembering unusual events, so those experiences tend to be overused when constructing mental simulations of future events. When it comes to imagining what our lives would be like after a big change, such as winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed, we thus tend to focus on how we would feel in the early moments and underestimate how well we might adapt to situations over time.

Incorrect predictions may still lead to positive outcomes. One study found that professors overestimated how upset they would feel when denied tenure. This overestimation of future grief — while inaccurate — likely led them to work harder, thereby improving their odds of getting tenure.

HOW — AND WHERE — PROSPECTION GROWS

The way we think about the future passes through different phases in childhood and can continue to change throughout adulthood. Children start to be able to mentally simulate detailed future events during their preschool years and build on this skill through middle childhood, adolescence, and into young adulthood. One study found that four- and five-year-olds chose to bring puzzle pieces to a second room that they knew contained a puzzle board but not to a room that did not contain the board, suggesting that they were able to think ahead about what would be useful in a different context. (Three-year-olds’ selections appeared to be more random).

Other research suggests that as children get older, they increase the proportion of specific versus general details that they include in their descriptions of future events. With adults, one study found that the ability to create vivid, detailed descriptions of past and future episodes peaks at around age 21. Another study found that during old age, like during early childhood, people tend to rely more on general details when engaging in mental time travel, perhaps due to a decline in cognitive functioning.

Where, exactly, does this cognitive function take place? Multiple brain imaging studies have suggested that the medial temporal lobe and the frontal lobe — both of which play significant roles in memory — are also involved in thinking about the future. Many patients with damage to their medial temporal lobe are known to exhibit memory deficits as well as prospection impairments. But some parts of the brain may be uniquely future-oriented: in one study, PET scans measuring blood flow in healthy participants found specific areas of the medial temporal and frontal lobes that were more active when people talked about the future than when they talked about the past.

BREAKDOWN AND GROWTH

Sometimes faulty prospection isn’t just inaccurate; it can also be deeply unhelpful. A growing body of work suggests that prospection can play a role in a host of conditions including depression, anxiety, ADHD, and addiction. Research suggests that depression in particular can be worsened by dysfunctional prospection: people with depression simulate possible futures that are more negative, and are quicker to provide specific examples of potentially negative versus positive future events. In patients who struggle with ADHD, schizophrenia, and addiction, an inability to plan well for future events is a commonly observed side effect.

Fortunately a growing body of research suggests techniques that can be used to target prospection in order to improve mental health symptoms and encourage overall psychological growth. Methods used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have proven useful in correcting how people think about the future. In addition, psychologists have developed various treatment packages that are explicitly future-oriented, including future-directed therapy, hope therapy, prospective writing, solution-focused therapy, and anticipatory savoring.

Future-mindedness is a crucial part of being human and a skill essential to planning and thriving. Humanity has been thinking about the future as long as it has been a species, but the science of prospection is relatively new, and compelling questions remain to be explored about the ways prospection develops and changes throughout our lives, how it may vary across cultures, and how it can harm or help us as we navigate today and look forward to tomorrow.

STILL CURIOUS?

Read the full white paper here.