Humans aren’t alone in our ability to imagine the future and predict likely outcomes. Research shows that animals from ravens to orangutans plan ahead by setting aside tools for later use. Still, our capacity for future-mindedness extends far beyond that of other species. We can dream about many scenarios that haven’t yet happened—for good or ill. (Seneca: “We suffer more from imagination than from reality.”) We can constantly update our predictions of our personal future based on what we observe in the world around us.
How we think about the future has significant implications for our decision making, and which actions we take (or don’t). This makes intuitive sense: if you can’t picture yourself in a different job, for example, you’re unlikely to pursue new opportunities. If you expect to take a vacation next year, you’ll make the choice to set aside money and book flights.
But despite our impressive imaginations, humans are stuck with a curious tendency: the habit of sabotaging our future selves in favor of the present. As Dr. Summer Allen writes in a paper about future-mindedness prepared for the John Templeton Foundation, “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.’” In other words, we tend to devalue a later payoff, even if that payoff is obviously higher than any immediate gratification. More than we’d like to admit, many of us are the children in the marshmallow experiment who couldn’t wait for two marshmallows and chose to eat just one right away.
The trick to choosing larger, long-term rewards over smaller, short-term rewards lies in making the not-yet feel more immediate and concrete. Research shows that three factors in particular help us look out for our future selves.
Kinship with future selves
A range of studies reveal that people who feel connected to their future selves are more willing to reward those selves. In a study about money-saving behaviors, computer-generated images showed participants how they might look many years down the road. Faced with images of their older selves, these participants felt a deeper connection with the person they could become. Not only that, they changed their actions accordingly, choosing to contribute more money to a hypothetical retirement account.
On the other hand, Daniel Bartels and Oleg Urminsky at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business write about how readily we sabotage our future selves in favor of the present. They found that people who imagine their core identity traits changing over time also imagine a future self that is nearly a different person—and because of this, show less motivation to make decisions that benefit this future self. Conversely, those who view their core values and traits as stable are more likely to feel a psychological connection to their future self, and act on this self’s behalf.
In one study, Bartels and Urminsky gave graduating seniors two different scenarios to read. The first group of seniors read about how post-graduation life would cause significant changes in their core identity. The second group read about a life after graduation in which their identities remained stable. The first group, feeling distant from the person they would become, chose immediate and lower-value gift cards over higher-value gift cards received a year later. The students who perceived their future selves as closely linked to the present were more likely to wait for a larger reward.
In other words, when we sense a psychological similarity or continuity with our future selves, we’re better at looking out for them. But when those future selves seem disconnected from our present—when we expect our identities to change—we’re likely to focus instead on short-term rewards.
Like Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s famous novel, we live recklessly when we view our future selves as divorced from us: in his case, the consequences of his hedonistic life were suffered not by Gray, but by his portrait, which grew aged and battered while he stayed young, impulsive, and indulgent of every desire.
A vivid imagination
So how to become the anti-Dorian Gray—that is, someone who loves and cares for the self we will become? Another way to counteract our tendency to overlook future benefits is by flexing our imagination muscle. Envisioning a possible future event in specific, concrete detail helps heighten the perceived value of future rewards. The trick is to vividly imagine a future scenario in as much detail as you can muster. (For example, instead of just wishing you were more fit, picture yourself—stronger, leaner, with a clear mind and more stamina—after walking for 30 minutes a day for the next six months.) Calling to mind this scene or outcome, according to a study on imagination and farsighted decisions, “effectively motivates decisions in the present which will only be advantageous in the future.”
In a German study on future thinking, participants were asked to repeatedly choose between receiving 20 euros immediately, or receiving a larger amount of money down the road. In some cases, researchers tied the future date to participants’ real-life plans. For example, they might be told that they would receive the money in forty-five days, when they left on a planned summer vacation. In these cases, participants were more likely to wait for their reward. The specificity of a date tied to concrete plans allowed them to imagine their future in greater concrete detail. This, in turn, led to a decision benefiting the self who inhabited that future.
Adaptations in language
One of the simplest tricks for bringing the future closer is by changing the way we talk about it. In some cases, tweaking our language makes a future event appear nearer. One study found that by counting down to retirement in days instead of years, subjects perceived their retirements to be sooner and planned to save money earlier. The same concept applies to writing; writing a date numerically (7/5/25) rather than in abstract terms (“four years from now”) can decrease delay discounting.
Even something as minor as a shift in point of view can make a difference. For instance, research suggests that thinking about a situation in the third-person may help people adopt a big-picture perspective. Next time you’re deciding between immediate and future gratification, try talking about yourself in the third person: “By choosing to study for a couple hours tonight, Sarah will miss her TV show. But this weekend, she won’t have to open her textbooks and will be free to attend her niece’s birthday party.”
Discounting the value of far-off rewards is a natural human tendency—but by flexing our imaginations, changing our language, and feeling more connected to our future selves, we can harness our forward-thinking abilities for good.