Why we find it difficult to face the future

Alisa Opar writes: The British philosopher Derek Parfit espoused a severely reductionist view of personal identity in his seminal book, Reasons and Persons: It does not exist, at least not in the way we usually consider it. We humans, Parfit argued, are not a consistent identity moving through time, but a chain of successive selves, each tangentially linked to, and yet distinct from, the previous and subsequent ones. The boy who begins to smoke despite knowing that he may suffer from the habit decades later should not be judged harshly: “This boy does not identify with his future self,” Parfit wrote. “His attitude towards this future self is in some ways like his attitude to other people.”

Parfit’s view was controversial even among philosophers. But psychologists are beginning to understand that it may accurately describe our attitudes towards our own decision-making: It turns out that we see our future selves as strangers. Though we will inevitably share their fates, the people we will become in a decade, quarter century, or more, are unknown to us. This impedes our ability to make good choices on their—which of course is our own—behalf. That bright, shiny New Year’s resolution? If you feel perfectly justified in breaking it, it may be because it feels like it was a promise someone else made.

“It’s kind of a weird notion,” says Hal Hershfield, an assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “On a psychological and emotional level we really consider that future self as if it’s another person.”

Using fMRI, Hershfield and colleagues studied brain activity changes when people imagine their future and consider their present. They homed in on two areas of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, which are more active when a subject thinks about himself than when he thinks of someone else. They found these same areas were more strongly activated when subjects thought of themselves today, than of themselves in the future. Their future self “felt” like somebody else. In fact, their neural activity when they described themselves in a decade was similar to that when they described Matt Damon or Natalie Portman. [Continue reading…]

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1 thought on “Why we find it difficult to face the future

  1. Steve Zerger

    Buddhists have long analyzed the concept of the self coherently and shown that it doesn’t exist in the way we think it does, and a few western philosophers have concurred. Unfortunately, the western mind since Socrates has been trapped in its conception of the human soul as an entity which is unchanging through time and even immortal. This is part of a destructive complex of errors. That our own behavior doesn’t accord with our professed beliefs is a routine observation.

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