Present Self vs. Future Self: How Do We Make the Right Decisions

I recently watched this TED talk given by behavior economist Daniel Goldstein. The talk, entitled “The battle between your present and future self,” argues that we have two selves– a present self and a future self– and that in order to make good decisions based on more than mere impulse in the moment, we need to attend to our future selves.

How do we do this, given that we are not our future selves? Goldstein suggests “commitment devices,” which are tools we can use to “level the playing field” between the struggle of the present self and the future self. He gives the example of a commitment device he once used: resolving to write 5 pages a day while in grad school, and committing to giving away $5 (leaving it in an envelope on the subway so as not to feel the gratification of charity) if he did not reach his goal. This dis-incentive from not writing 5 pages a day helped him to achieve his positive goal.

Goldstein assumes that the present self is out for instant gratification, while the future self is out for…? Here, Goldstein’s argument is unclear. It seems that he is implicitly putting forth two different theses about the future self’s desires: that, on the one hand, the future self also wants instant gratification, inasmuch as that future self will, in the future become a present self, and that, on the other hand, the future self wants long-term satisfaction. I think when he uses the term ‘future self’ in this second sense, he is not in fact talking about a future self, but is talking about a present self with regard to long-term future goals. I feel that my present self wants both instant gratification in the present and achievement of long-term future goals. Don’t we all? I think that Goldstein’s argument is insufficient in conceiving of the present and future selves in this way (that is to say, I think it is obvious that our present selves are always also bearing a relation to the future, rather than merely wanting immediate gratification, and that our future selves, too, will both want immediate gratification and future gratification).

But, perhaps the more important question is: how do we know what our future selves will want? I may be able to infer that, in the future, I will want both immediate gratification and future satisfaction (the desire to have one’s cake and eat it too), but I don’t know how I will conceive of that. What will satisfy me in the future? What will I want?

When I was applying to high school, one of my applications asked me to envision what my life would be 15 years down the road. I wrote (In Bradley Hand font, naturally) that in 15 years, I would be a successful interior designer with my own firm specializing in the “shabby chic” style. Here I am now, almost 15 years later, with a completely different life than that one. Not because I tried to be an interior designer and failed, but rather because I made entirely different choices. Interior design is a perfectly wonderful career, and I’m still passionate about creating beautiful spaces (although, let’s be honest, shabby chic is somewhat passé by now)…but as I grew older, my ideas changed, and I developed different passions and goals that have led me to where I am today, as a doctoral student. If I had employed “commitment devices” in order to help me reach this goal, I would have relegated myself to a future that sounded ideal for me way back then, but might not at this point in my life. We cannot imagine how we will feel in the future, and yet we try and live our lives as though we do. This is necessary to some extent. Of course, I should save money (the extended example Goldstein gives) so that I will have extra funds if something unexpected happens– yeah, there was that time when I wish I’d saved up because of the unexpected money I had to pay for car repairs. We have to make plans with regard to our futures in order to succeed. And yet we never know what those futures will look like. This is the paradox of relation to our ‘future selves.’ 

Karl Marx thought a lot about this idea of the future with regard to the developmental progress in history. Thus, he was thinking about the future not with respect to the individual person, but with respect to society in general. He suggested that, in order to envision such a future, we must consider the concrete facts of the present and what they might give rise to. Because we don’t know what future those future conditions will give rise to, though, we should limit our ideas about what the future might look like to the “near future.” Marx guarded against thinking up ‘recipes’ for the ‘cookshops of the future’ that he thought characterized the work of utopian thinkers trying to plan out every detail of what a future, ideal society a long way down the road would look. If we apply Marx’s analysis to our own relation to our ‘future selves,’ we can see that it suggests that we try and analyze what decisions to make to secure a good near future (for instance, I should book my plane ticket for a trip I’m planning to take in a few months– or even, that I should do my best to publish an article in the next year in order to build my résumé so that I can eventually get a good academic job), but leave the details of the far future up in the air. There’s no point in me trying to plan out my life 30 years down the line in exact detail, because there are far too many contingent factors, not least of which is a succession of personal changes in attitude and values. Surprisingly, Goldstein does not even note this. He thinks that the solution to disparity between present and future selves is in fact to help us to think about our futures in more detail so that we can plan accordingly. He and his co-workers created a computer program that helps people to visualize how their lives will be in the future, in order to give their present selves greater impetus for actualizing that future. I think this is going about it the wrong way entirely.

I have written down in my journal somewhere from when I was younger, “Don’t let these be childish dreams that you forget. Stick to them!!” That has stuck with me. But the specific dreams that I imagined back then simply are no longer my dreams of the present. It’s pretty obvious that what we aspire to changes over time, and that that’s okay.

Not to mention the fact that the ‘present self’ is never present to itself. How do I even know, in this very moment, what I want? Goldstein talks about the division of the self in terms of present self and future self, but he doesn’t acknowledge that even in the present, there are all kinds of divisions in my attitudes, feelings, hopes, desires, ideas. Some are conscious, some are unconscious, some are semi-conscious; some are confabulations, some are fictions, some seem right but are not. (Another TED talk in this same group, by philosopher Daniel Dennett, argues along these lines with relation to consciousness, and is actually pretty good, though I disagree with the general conception of consciousness at play in his work: you can find it here, along with a number of other talks on similar topics, including Goldstein’s.) I find Goldstein’s talk definitely worth watching: the idea of ‘commitment devices’ can certainly be useful, and give rise to interesting questions about what constitutes the self in the present and in the future. But who these selves are is a far more difficult question, and one that Goldstein does not explore here.

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