How Cognitive Bias Can Sabotage Your Resolutions
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In light of the new year, a lot of us find ourselves exploring novel habits, routines, and hobbies to invest our time and effort into in 2021. Whether it’s eating healthier and going to the gym more, or learning a new language to exercise our brains, these goals require some level of planning, especially if we want to be effective and efficient. We need to start thinking long term, and move away from improvising what to do at the dawn of each new day.
The issue is, planning for the future doesn’t come naturally to us. We’re all familiar with different versions of procrastination and the myriad vices associated with it: video games, social media, Netflix, you name it. We’re very aware of these distractions but still find ourselves falling victim to them. When we feel a burst of hope and tell ourselves that tomorrow will be different, we actively try our best to start fresh and vow never to fall into the same trap. But slowly, we trickle back down to what seems like our natural state: laziness.
It’s really disheartening, and as someone who’s been frustrated by this for a long time, I wanted to find answers. We each have biological and environmental differences, so how is it possible that we all share this seemingly ingrained flaw? And how can we strengthen ourselves so that we make better decisions?
Stick with me as we work through the historical and psychological explanations for these phenomena, which will give us the necessary insight into how we can increase our productivity, make better choices, and build a happy and successful life for ourselves.
So let’s get started. What does history teach us about the origins of our inability to make effective decisions?
Behavioral Science, Democratized
We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices.
At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.
The ancestral origins of our planning problems
I came across a possible answer after reading Sapiens, a beautiful book by Yuval Noah Harari that details the rich history of the human species.
The early foraging and hunter-gatherer societies engaged in a day-to-day method of survival. When their families needed food, men would go out to hunt game or collect vegetation. Since they had to migrate as their prey moved, they didn’t have any concept of a long-term reserve.
Climate shifts were also a motivation to keep them from settling down, as it was much safer to seek a new shelter than to fortify their current abode. Other than preparing for the winter, people didn’t collect food or belongings, since they viewed it as a burden to have more things to carry around. It slowed them down. And in the wilderness where predators come from all directions, this was a matter of life or death. Some societies went as far as killing off members of the group, like the elderly or sick, if they slowed them down. There was no real need to plan for the future, so they centered their life around the present.
The domestication of the human race changed everything. When these earlier societies discovered the potential of agriculture, a brand-new way of life emerged, one where settling down was finally a possibility. They couldn’t just live day-to-day anymore, moving as the weather changed, their game shifted, or predators approached. Despite the odds, they had to choose a single plot of land and survive. They quickly replaced their previous hunting efforts, establishing community reserves and developing homes. This brought dramatic changes to society as their sudden need to plan for the future prompted a new way of life.
Here, for the first time (on the communal, not individual level), humans began to plan ahead.
So yeah, we as humans don’t seem to have the whole “planning for our futures” thing ingrained in our genes. This is alarming though, seeing that it’s practically the center of our existence nowadays. What college will I go to? What job do I want to have? What do I need to do so that I can be happy? We aren’t spending our days searching for food as often as we spend them thinking about our futures.
So in the context of history, it’s quite comforting to know that our ancestors didn’t arrive prepared to plan for the future, much less excel at it. I don’t say this so that we become complacent, sitting by instead of taking control of our futures. It’s just good to know that we’re not alone in this struggle. The advent of agriculture clearly shows us how society had to shift its focus towards the future. But this prompts the question: How can we explain our individual ineffectiveness at planning for the future?
There are two cognitive biases that are useful for understanding our issues with planning: future-self continuity, and hyperbolic discounting.
Psychology enlightens us with a deeper look into the way we think about the future. We know from numerous studies that instead of being hardwired to maximize our long-term rewards, we resort to short-term gratifications. In practice, this is self-evident. But where does this come from and how can we get better at working against it? The answers lie in a psychological concept known as future-self continuity.
If I told you to think about yourself 5 years from now, who exactly are you imagining?
This one’s a little hard to grasp, so let’s start with a thought experiment. If I told you to think about yourself 5 years from now, who exactly are you imagining?
The answer I’m looking for isn’t a description of that imagined being, whether they’re taller, skinnier, or happier. What I’m really asking is this: do you believe that this imagined version of yourself is actually you? Do you treat the person you want to become (i.e. you in the future) as an aged version of yourself? Or does it feel more like thinking about a stranger, purely a figment of your imagination?
According to Hal Hershfield, if you feel like this “future self” is still you, this leads us to say you have a high level of future-self continuity: your current self in the present is continuous with your future self. On the contrary, if you feel like this thought experiment conjures up a person that feels foreign and similar to a stranger, then we’d say you have a high level of future-self discontinuity.1
Don’t start to worry if you fall into the latter category. As humans, we intrinsically gravitate towards future-self discontinuity, where we treat the future not as part of the journey, but more like an alternate reality. This may seem like a jumble of fake deep questions to ask, but psychological studies show us that the way we think about our futures has a lot to do with the issues we’re struggling with. Some thinkers have gone as far as to suggest that when people don’t have a strong sense of future-self continuity, they’re just as inclined to reward a stranger as they are to reward their future self.2
One study by researchers at Stanford University discusses how, when people don’t have a strong sense of future-self continuity, they’re just as inclined to reward a stranger as they are to reward their future self.2
Think about that for a second. Because we’re unable to feel continuous with our imagined reality in the future, we’re equally as likely to give our time, energy, and money to a complete stranger as we are to invest those same resources in our future selves.
So improving our future-self continuity can lead to improvements in our decision making such that we optimize our future success.
So what does this mean for us? The degree to which we feel connected, in the present, to our future self, dictates whether we ensure the well-being of that future self.1 So improving our future-self continuity can lead to improvements in our decision-making such that we optimize our future success. If you still think this is a bunch of useless information, let’s go a level deeper and see what happens if we don’t strengthen our sense of future-self continuity.
A lack of strong future-self continuity then leads us to what’s known as hyperbolic discounting.
Imagine you’re given the option to take a $5 bill right now or wait 10 minutes and get $10. That seems like a no-brainer. You’d much rather wait 10 minutes to double your profit since it is only 10 minutes.
Instead, consider you’re asked to wait a month to get the $10. Which one seems more appealing? $5 in your pocket right now or $10 after 30 days? Researchers who conducted this simple experiment found that people of all ages—from children to older adults—tend to take the $5 right now.3
What’s observed here is that as the time it takes to receive a reward increases, the value we attribute to that reward is “discounted.” So getting an objectively greater reward in the future seems almost less valuable when compared to being rewarded right now, even though we know the current reward is objectively smaller. This explains our natural tendency towards short term gratification because the reward of eating a slice of pizza right now is much greater than the reward of becoming a Gymshark athlete many years from now.
The reward in the long term is next to nothing in our heads.
Combining what we’ve learned about future-self continuity and hyperbolic discounting, it’s really easy to see why we slack on building our futures. Working on a long-term project tends to get outweighed by enjoying ourselves right now because the long-term reward seems almost insignificant. Furthermore, we reduce our “future self” to just a figment of our imagination, leaving us unable to seriously consider our futures as being a part of our life trajectory. Anything we do for our “future self” now feels like we’re wasting our resources on a stranger, so why not use those resources to enjoy ourselves right now?
We see now that it’s a big deal that leads to so many of the issues we have today with focus and productivity. We’re struggling to find the motivation to build our futures. We’re desperately trying new techniques, routines, and habits to alleviate this dilemma. But don’t feel hopeless. Now that we understand these 2 psychological phenomena, let’s break down how we can flip the switch and work towards a better future.
Back to the future
The diagram above gives us a theoretical goal to work towards. We need to start merging these two seemingly independent bubbles in our minds.
We now understand that a strong sense of continuity between our present selves and our future selves leads to higher levels of self-regulation and behaviors that maximize the long-term return. The diagram above gives us a theoretical goal to work towards. We need to start merging these two seemingly independent bubbles in our minds. The more that the “future you” feels like a direct extension of who you are now, the more effective you’ll be at prioritizing, scheduling, and growing as an individual, and thereby fighting the curve of hyperbolic discounting.
I wrote an article detailing how there are two lists that are essential for becoming a better version of ourselves:
- A list of the qualities and traits the 2.0 Version of yourself will embody
- A list of the projects or organizations you’re involved in, paired with how each is helping you become the person you described in list 1.4
For a more detailed walkthrough of this process, refer to the article here. Having this discretely outlined is crucial because without this, how will you even recognize your future self, let alone try and develop a sense of continuity with him/her?
How language can bias our thinking
Our sense of continuity isn’t a conscious thought process; rather, it’s implicitly shaped by our experiences, cultures, and languages. An interesting study by researchers at Yale University highlights the impact of language on our sense of future-self continuity.5
Let’s think about two languages, English and German, and consider the way they grammatically differentiate between the present and the future. English speakers know that in order to speak about an event tomorrow or a week from now, they add “will” or “going to” in a sentence.
“I will go to the store tomorrow.”
“I am going to fast next week.”
Languages like English are said to have strong future tenses because you can’t use present tense verbs to speak about future events. We don’t say “It rains tomorrow.”
Now consider German, which does exactly that. I’m most definitely not a native speaker of German, but according to the study, “Morgen regnet es” translates to “It rains tomorrow,” and that’s completely valid grammatically. German is a language with a weak future tense because it’s not required to add a word to differentiate a future event from a present one.
Keith Chen, who was the lead researcher for this experiment, found that speakers of languages that don’t differentiate between the present and future have higher retirement savings and make better health decisions.
What Chen found in this study is truly astounding. Languages that have strong future tenses (like English) led their speakers to engage in activities that prioritize their CURRENT selves. On the contrary, speakers of languages with weak future tenses (like German) were more likely to act in self-regulated, future-oriented ways. What seems like trivial differences in language amounts to a huge shift in the way we perceive our future self. Chen found that speakers of languages that don’t differentiate between the present and future have higher retirement savings and make better health decisions.
Although this study only shows correlation and not causation, let’s explore why this could be the case. English makes us feel like the future is its own entity, that it’s inherently distinct from the present. With that, we compartmentalize the things that are going to occur or are planned to happen in the future within their own bubble of things to address.
Conversely, languages like German make the future seem more immediate, as if it’s part of our current existence. It makes us believe that there isn’t much of a divide between our future self and our present self. This in turn leads to behaviors that maximize our “current” success and reward, which is really our overall success. The difference lies in our boundaries between the present and future.6
If you want to read more on this and how culture plays a part, check out this article.
Instead of using speech like “I want to be a healthy person,” say “I am a healthy person.”
Here we learned that language has a significant impact on the way we distinguish between the present and the future. Something as minute as changing the way we speak about ourselves can have a huge impact on our self-image. Choosing to embrace our future identities as who we are now, as opposed to speaking of from a 3rd-person point of view, can help us integrate who we want to become into who we are now.
Instead of using speech like “I want to be a healthy person,” say “I am a healthy person.” Adopt the characteristics of your future self into who you are now and it’ll help shape your decisions almost immediately. If you use the latter phrasing and believe you are NOW a healthy person, your decisions will reflect that. You’ll make choices that are in line with the identity you outline for yourself. This can lead to an improved sense of future-self continuity, as you’re graying the boundaries between the present and future. You’re adopting the future you into the current you. You’re developing continuity.
If you’re wanting to read more on this, ToDoist actually has a great article that details Future-Self Continuity and how we can practically combat it. My aim in this article was to simply give a basis for the next 2 pieces, so definitely check this out for a deeper dive.
The goal of this essay was to give us the foundations we need in understanding why it is we slack in long-term planning, and what we can do to improve. Future-self continuity tells us that we should actively keep our future at the forefront of our minds, constantly striving to embody our 2.0 Identity. Hyperbolic discounting teaches us the consequences of losing sight of this long term vision, giving us an explanation for our tendencies to procrastinate.
About the Author
Sohail Mohammad is currently a Software Developing Intern at a startup, striving to become a Machine Learning Engineer. He is an undergraduate student at The University of Texas at Dallas studying Cognitive Science, pursuing his Masters in Applied Cognition and Neuroscience. Sohail is interested in the intersection of Neuropsychology, Philosophy, and Islam, and enjoys writing and reading about these topics in his free time.