Strangers to Our Futures

What psychology tells us about ourselves.

Strangers to Our Futures

I can't remember how old I was when it happened.

My dad got pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt. Actually, he got pulled over for tossing a cigarette out the window. He didn't even realize what he'd done. The officer let him off with a warning because he appeared to feel bad about it. Eventually, he started wearing a seatbelt and stopped smoking. It took a real health scare, in his 60s.

My dad isn't stupid.

He's an engineer.

Even today, he avoids large crowds. He wears an n95 respirator when he goes to buy groceries. He knows how to make steel. He knows how to hack computer games. He can code. He can draw. He still doesn't recycle. Not even glass or cardboard. It doesn't enter his head. It doesn't matter how many times I bring it up. He'll say he should. Then he doesn't.

So, if you want to know how long it can take for an intelligent person to change their behavior, try 20 years. Even then, they're going to do some smart things and some dumb, selfish things.

I keep asking why.

For years now, I've dug through psychology for answers about our current crises. All this research has shown me that it's almost normal for a large portion of society to disregard warnings until the last minute. It's normal for them to fight against simple protections for their personal freedom. It's normal for them to conform to ignorance simply to fit in. It's normal for them to grant moral licenses to celebrities even when those celebrities are getting people killed. During an emergency, most of them will completely freeze up when they should act. When a news anchor tells them to remain calm, they do it, even when part of them knows it's a lie and something is deeply, deeply wrong. They go to great lengths to defend a status quo that hurts them, just because they're afraid of change. If you try to warn someone about a threat, they'll mistake you for the threat and try to get you fired or locked up.

There's one more thing.

It's a big one.

People regard the future versions of themselves as a stranger. It's hard to believe. When you say something like that, it sounds like something out of a dystopian novel. Then you think about your life.

It makes perfect sense.

A psychologist named Hal Hershfield has been studying people's relationships to their future selves for years now. He hooks them up to a little machine and scans their brains while asking them questions about complete strangers. Then he asks them questions about themselves a couple of years from now. The questions light up the same parts of the brain.

People score on a spectrum.

Some of us have a pretty close relationship with our future selves. We want to treat that person well, but we're not a majority. A large number of people really don't seem to care that much about their future.

Hershfield did a version of the controversial marshmallow test. He offered them a little money now or a lot of money later. He was paying them real money. The ones who scored low on the future self survey did what you'd imagine. They opted for a little bit of money now.

These studies mostly focus on financial planning and personal health, but we can extrapolate from them to see why it's so hard to get someone to wear a good mask or even just drive a little less. The short term gains outweigh the long term payoffs, no matter how smart they are. The short term pressure to conform outweighs the long term payoff of protecting your future.

We're not kind to ourselves.

We're mean.

It turns out that all of this rugged individualism and "you do you" culture really is hurting everyone, in tangible ways. If your personality type, religion, or political affiliation conditions and encourages you to put yourself first, before everyone else, that includes your future self.

You'll screw them over, too.

When you look at it like that, the ultimate narcissists become the ultimate masochists. They don't care about anyone, even themselves a year or two from now. They don't care about their future. They don't think about it. They don't want to know about it.

Compassion and empathy don't make you weak. The compassion and kindness you show for other people is exactly the same kind that benefits you. The compassion and empathy you deny others, you deny yourself.

We live in a world where everyone from bankers to politicians and even public health officials can't think beyond the next performance review, the next quarterly report, the next season, the next election. It's no wonder why it's so hard to get them to understand that an infection now can cause a heart attack in six months. Forget about ten or twenty years.

So when this or that news outlet talks in grim terms about collapse or crisis in 2040 or 2050, it doesn't scare anyone. Most people truly don't care what's going to happen to them in 2040. Next year might as well be next century. Extinction of humans by 2100. Who cares?

If you can't get someone to care about their own future self in a year or two, good luck getting an oil executive or a corn mogul to think about their grandchildren. That's why those arguments don't work anymore. The cultural narcissism and compassion deficits we've cultivated have almost completely eradicated our own sense of self-preservation.

It's never hopeless.

These studies just prove that there's really no difference between taking care of yourself, taking care of your future, and taking care of society. That's a more optimistic takeaway, I guess. Self and society really do activate the same parts of the brain. We're not selfish by nature.

It just looks that way.

If you appreciate my work, please support it by signing up or downloading my book, Doomer, on Gumroad. You can also get an early hardback version through Lulu.

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