Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
In the late 60s and early 70s, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a series of groundbreaking experiments at Stanford. The subjects were small children (ages 3-5), and the experiments were simple, elegant, and a little devilish.
Each child was placed in a room with a table, a chair, and a marshmallow. A researcher offered each child a choice:
- Eat the marshmallow sitting in front of you.
- Wait 15 minutes and receive two marshmallows instead of one.
Let me remind you that 15 minutes is an eternity to a small child.
Leaving the kid alone with the marshmallow, the researchers took note of what happened next.
Some children simply ate the marshmallow.
Others were able to resist the sugary treat by distracting themselves in various, sometimes adorable ways (including my personal favorite, “[stroking] the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal”).
In a series of follow-up studies years later, Mischel found a correlation: the children who were able to delay self-gratification turned out to be more successful in a whole slew of ways, from having higher SAT scores to being considered more competent by their parents.
Whether you’re a small child (which you’re probably not) or a full-fledged adult, you surely feel the tension between immediate pleasure and future well-being. Or, in other words, between short-term and long-term thinking.
It’s usually prudent to prioritize long-term thinking, of course, and we’ll get into that next time. But for now, let’s look at three reasons we get snookered into short-term thinking.
1. We undervalue future rewards
Like hindsight bias, temporal discounting is one of our weird human idiosyncrasies. Here’s what it means: the closer a reward is to the present moment in time, the more we value it. The further away the reward is (think far distant past or years in the future), the less value we place on it.
Want an example?
In a variation on the marshmallow experiment, say I offer you a choice: I’ll give you either $100 right now or $110 in six months. Most people would take the Benjamin and run, right? That’s my instinct, too.
But $10 more for six months of waiting works out to a 20% annual rate of return: pretty baller. Plus, waiting for the money allows you to experience the joy of anticipation.
Temporal discounting causes us to mess up our lives in a whole bunch of ways, and we have to fight to overcome it. When it comes to things like saving for retirement, eating well even though we’re young and healthy, or investing in our careers, we’re wired to short-change our Future Selves (and most of us do).
2. Our culture encourages short-term thinking
It’s no secret that most of the companies we do business with have a vested interest in keeping us focused on the short-term.
Jimmy John’s doesn’t want me to realize I spent $1,000 on their sandwiches last year. They especially don’t want me to calculate how much that comes out to per decade and what else that money could buy. They’d also prefer I didn’t think long and hard about exactly how nutritious Jimmy John’s is.
Cable companies would rather we didn’t Google how many hours of TV the average American watches per year (and then consider what else we could do with that time). If I offered you 18,000 extra hours over the next ten years to learn any skill you want, would you take it? Good news! It’s there for the taking any time you want.
Car companies would much rather we ask “How much per month?”, instead of “What’s the grand total?” They especially don’t want us to ask “How much would I have 40 years from now if I bought a 4 year-old car instead of a new one and invested the difference?”
By the way, this doesn’t make companies evil, just clever. Most companies are trying to maximize their profit, and they’re going to present their product or service to us in the best light possible relative to this goal. In the age of the internet, though, we consumers have the power, and it’s up to us to see through their cleverness.
3. We see our future selves as more virtuous than our present selves
Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.
— St. Augustine
Often, we know our short-term behavior isn’t serving us, but we think our future selves will surely quit the harmful habit. I’ve been down this road many times.
On January 1st of last year, you could have offered me a year of unlimited Jimmy John’s for $1,000, and I would have turned you down. “Heavens, no,” Past Jonathan would have said. “I could never spend that much in one year at a sandwich shop. Plus, that much fast food is bad for you. Good day!”
It’s worth remembering that on the whole, Future You is going to have the same strengths, weaknesses, good habits, and bad habits as you do. Any time you find yourself thinking, “I’ll cut back later,” it’s probably more of an emergency than you think.
Short-term thinking is a major problem, but we can train ourselves to embrace long-term thinking in its place (we’ll talk about this on Tuesday).
In the meantime, start thinking of Future You as a real person, one whose reality you are molding now with your decisions (just as Past You created your present reality). If you consider her needs just as much as your own, a funny thing will happen:
You’ll both be happier.