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Future-oriented decisions: Key to better grades, more money, staying healthy

www.thehansindia.com | February 6, 2024

Have you wondered why it is hard to study for the exam over watching a movie or quitting cigarettes, why you spend so much on Zomato and Swiggy, or why you end up buying unnecessary things?

Imagine that a family member is suffering from diabetes. The doctor advises removing sugar and salt from the diet. The family member does so, but in a couple of days at a family gathering, they look at their favorite sweets, give into the temptation, and eat a bowlful. Imagine a more simple situation: an everyday alarm.

Imagine you have your monthly budget all worked out for spending, savings, and investing. As the weekend arrives, you go to the mall, look at all the new fast fashion in stores, and can’t resist buying. You feel that if you don’t buy and wear them, you will miss out on the latest trend. 

Intertemporal choice and discounting 

In all of these situations, we are encountering a conflict between a small immediate pleasure (enjoy the sweet) and a large future benefit (healthy and long life). This is called intertemporal choice since it involves an amount of time that one has to wait to get a larger future benefit. Research across psychology and marketing shows that we find it difficult to stop ourselves from indulging in the immediate pleasures of eating sweet or salty food, spending on unnecessary clothing, etc. This indulgence in immediate gratification leads to future costs such as lower grades, lower savings, diseases, and consequently, regrets. We do this because we tend to attach less value to future benefits as compared to immediate gratification. Hence, we tend to discount the future benefits.

Why do we undervalue the future? 

Research in psychology suggests that this undervaluation of the future benefit is due to several reasons. 

First, the future is uncertain and hard to imagine, and we fail to imagine with clarity the future consequences while we are thinking of the immediate pleasure (Simons, Vansteenkiste, Lens, & Lacante, 2004).

Second, we can imagine the future but are unable to account for the regret and think that we will be okay with the future displeasure (Gilbert & Wilson, 2007). 

Third, we might simply not imagine the future self as ourselves but as someone else from a third-person perspective (Pronin & Ross, 2006). This means that when I am thinking of watching a movie immediately, I imagine myself watching the movie or can salivate at the thought of the food. On the other hand, when I imagine myself in the future, I see myself looking at another person. This disconnect can lead to choices against this imagined other person. Finally, taking the immediate benefit is the shortest route towards a reward or pleasure and is made by the automatic decision system in our brain, but the decision to wait for the future benefit is made by the deliberative system in the brain (Shenhav, Rand, & Greene, 2017).

How can we prevent decisions that give immediate pleasure but cause future pain? 

There are several actions that we can take to make decisions that are oriented towards better future outcomes. Research by Hershfield et al. (2011) suggests that imagining the future vividly, clearly, and in concrete terms can prevent choices that result in indulging in immediate pleasure and lead to better monetary savings. Writing down in a journal and drawing the future self with the feelings that will be experienced can help imagine the future self vividly and concretely and help in future-oriented decisions. 

Another method would be to imagine the future self as fundamentally the same as the current self while dealing with the dilemma of choosing immediate pleasure vs. future benefit (Bartels & Urminsky, 2011). This method seems to reduce the disconnect between the current and future selves, leading to future-oriented decisions. We make sacrifices for desirable others. Thus, if we imagine the future self more positively, it makes the future self more desirable (Molouki & Bartels, 2015), and we are in a position to let go of the immediate pleasure for the benefit of the future self. Finally, one can prevent oneself from giving in to temptation, and before making the final decision, one can take the help of another person, friend, or spouse to help reflect and, in a simple manner, lay out the future pros and cons of that decision. 

In conclusion, future-oriented decisions help us maintain long-term health and wealth. This does not mean obsessing over every decision and preventing ourselves from enjoying every immediate pleasure. The pursuit of long-term happiness and health is to strike a balance between immediate pleasures and sacrifices that ensure future happiness. 

(The authors are faculty at Department of Psychological Sciences, FLAME University)

(Source:- https://www.thehansindia.com/hans/education-careers/future-oriented-decisions-key-to-better-grades-more-money-staying-healthy-856695?infinitescroll=1 )