Sacrifice The Present For The Future Or The Future For The Present?

For the first time in my life I am faced with this dilemma everyone would like to have: how much should I save, how much should I spend? I used to have no choice but to spend it all…

But the dilemma doesn’t only concern money. It’s a constant dilemma we’re faced with when making time allocation decisions. We find ourselves stuck between two contradictory injunctions: on the one hand, the idea of loving one’s future self like oneself; on the other, the idea of living more in the present. Delayed gratification versus instant gratification. Ambition versus mindfulness.

Depending on risk aversion, personality, addiction, external environment, we all make different decisions. But, really, when the choice becomes a conscious one, it’s extremely hard to make. Obviously one should neither entirely sacrifice the present for the future nor sacrifice the future for the present. So what’s the right balance?

Delayed gratification is a predictor of success

The idea that someone’s ability to delay gratification serves as a predictor of their future success was theorised by the psychologists who did the famous Stanford ‘Marshmallow experiment’ in the 1960s. The experiment was led by psychologist Walter Mischel, who later published an excellent book on the subject.

In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards (i.e., a larger later reward) if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (The reward was a marshmallow or some other sweet, which explains the name of the test). The children tested in the 60s were followed for two decades by the researchers. It was found that the children who waited longer for the desirable reward tended to fare better in a lot of things: better academic achievement, better body mass index, psychological health, etc.

Indeed, the ability to defer gratification makes investment possible. You invest when you believe (or know) that by delaying gratification, you can expect larger future rewards. That’s how you can learn to play an instrument, or master jujitsu. It works all the better when you eventually get some form of instant gratification in the process (i.e. it becomes pleasurable in and of itself to practice your instrument or practice at the dojo).

Ambition equals success through the consistent execution of a long-term plan. Without delayed gratification, ambition is just wishful thinking.

“I can resist anything but temptation”, Oscar Wilde

In adults, the inability to delay gratification is linked to pathologies, known as “impulse control disorders” — failure to resist a temptation, urge or impulse that may harm oneself or others. Many known psychiatric disorders like substance-related disorders and conduct and mood disorders, involve a dysfunction of the striatum, a part of the forebrain that is a critical component of the reward system. (For some neuroscience info: Wikipedia)

So there is no delayed gratification for drug addicts. They are the prisoners of instant gratification. For them, there is nothing but instant gratification. Addiction is the total deprivation of the future self.

The continuity of the self: loving past, present and future selves

More generally (‘philosophically’?), picturing one’s future self is critical not just for every kind of planning ahead, not just for “success”, but also for showing empathy towards others. Our future self is a close ‘other’ that isn’t much different from a close relative. Being able to heed the needs and feelings of our future selves may very well be related to our ability to heed the needs and feelings of other family members, close friends and everyone else.

It questions the notion of self as a stable and unique entity. Being able to project one’s self in the future requires a form of continuity. But this continuity doesn’t mean they’re the same. They are necessarily plural. In a way, they are family.

With a healthy amount of self worth, you can establish the continuity between the different selves. Healthy self worth means you look at your past self with compassion and love the way you would look at your own child and you look at your future self with respect and interest like you would a loved elder by your side.

A lack of self worth is usually related to the absence of continuity between the different selves: either because the past self is despised, or the future self is absent, or the present self is neglected.

Indeed, constantly delaying gratification is as pathological as never delaying it. That’s how people become anorexic, or stingy… Somehow they cannot be mindful of their present self.

Should I Save or Should I Spend?

When it comes to saving money, we often find it difficult to strike the right balance between present and future selves. It can be described as a battle between your past and your present self. And it’s often an unfair battle, because the present self is a strong ‘hot head’ and is in control while the future self is not around and may not have a lawyer present in the room to stick up to it.

As for myself, I’m still undecided as to what the better tools are, but in my research I found that there are two ways to strengthen our future self in the present:

  • Resorting to commitment devices. The older commitment device is the one used by Odysseus: to be able to listen to the song of the sirens, he asked his crew to tie him to the mast and not untie him no matter how hard he pleaded and no matter how reasonable his arguments may sound. Today, it means not having any junk food in the fridge or the cupboard to avoid temptation, having fixed 5-year savings plans one cannot cancel, having friends and family neighbours play the part of the mast in Odysseus’s siren temptation, etc.
  • But commitment devices are constant reminders of one’s shortcomings, one’s inability to exert self-control. Commitment devices aren’t a very positive way to reinforce feelings of self-worth. Often, the inability to save money is simply related to a lack of belief or imagination, rather than a lack of self-control. That’s why tools, stories and exercices to stimulate imagination / simulate the situation of the future self are as effective as commitment devices. If you can SEE how you’ll live at 70, you bring your future self into the negotiating room. Just using VR tools to project your face at a future age have proved very effective…

So what do you think? Are you familiar with tools or techniques to strengthen the future self in the present? Leave a comment!