How your brain is wired: Is your brain sabotaging your future self’s wellbeing?

Woman standing reading book

Can you outwit your brain? Our brains have the power to undermine our wellbeing goals, through built-in biases which have the power to shape our behaviour.

Crawford Hollingworth and Cathy Tomlinson, authors of How Your Brain is Wired: An Owner’s Manual explain how our brains are wired with a bias to discount the future and why understanding it can help you overcome it.

We have an in-built wiring to discount the future in favour of the present moment. Cake today and a healthy salad tomorrow?

We don’t like waiting and we don’t like losing, whether it’s waiting for rewards or losing out on returns on an investment – discounting the future bias and time-inconsistent preferences are both long-winded ways of describing our tendency to prefer immediate rewards to long-term future gains. (It’s also known as present bias.) All the things we know would be ‘good for us’ in the future but will cause us some inconvenience or pain today – things like not having that second piece of cake or glass of wine, giving up smoking, getting fit, saving money or making bigger, or any, pension contributions – these are the things that are affected by this bias. We are more oriented towards short-term than longterm satisfaction, and that’s why we find it hard to do any of them. J. D. Trout, a professor of philosophy at Loyola University in Chicago, expresses it perfectly when he says we are addicted to ‘present pleasures’: ‘We are all too aware of our present desires: the pleasing anticipation of the taste of cheesecake, the long draw on the cigarette, basking on the beach, or sex.’

It is hard to resist the siren call of gratification right now and to choose instead to postpone it until a future time. However, we are perfectly happy to commit our future selves to hardships of one kind or another – it’s why, although we personally can’t start the diet today, or go for a run just now, or forego this cigarette we’re about to light, we’re confident that the future us will be able to do it – tomorrow, on Monday, next week, sometime, anytime; just not now. Our tendency to discount the future is also the reason we might overcommit ourselves in the future – agreeing to do things then that we would never commit to do today. We haven’t been able to exercise much this week, but next week we’re really going to go all out. If you ask me for a two-hour meeting tomorrow afternoon, I’ll most likely turn you down, but I’ll happily agree to multiple meetings in a month’s time. When that future date arrives, I’ll seriously regret my busy schedule. How could I have done this to myself?

Ask us what we will have for lunch each day next week and we’re likely to list a varied and healthful menu. When ‘next week’ comes around, our immediate lunchtime choices are likely to be much less varied and probably less healthful too. And our exercise plans? They’ll probably go the same way. I’ll definitely have that doughnut today while Future Me eats salad.

J. D. Trout suggests that our apparent frailty in the face of this bias can be bad for us, especially in the context of future financial planning. Even though we can discover for ourselves that to live comfortably in retirement we would need an income of around 80 per cent of our current pay, we still fail to put enough money into our pension pots. But help can be at hand, and, in the US at least, it is behavioural science that has driven the development of a pension product that attempts to tackle the problem. The Save More Tomorrow plan allows employees to divert a portion of their 75 Section 1 future salary increases towards retirement savings. The plan’s genius lies in the upfront commitment it demands: getting prospective plan-holders to sign up to start the plan in three months’ time (i.e. committing their future selves to do it) and, further, that the additional contributions to the plan come directly from salary increases, meaning that individuals will never see the impact of the increased contributions on their take-home salary and so they won’t have to regard the pension contributions as money lost.

The concept of Future You is even being harnessed by advertisers. In an email from fashion retailer Boden, the subject line reads: ‘Your future self will thank you.’ It can help to remember your future self when you are about to commit to something in the distant future. Instead of instantly agreeing, be kinder and just say ‘No’. Your future self will almost certainly thank you.

Extract taken from How Your Brain is Wired: An Owners Manual, by Crawford Hollingworth and Cathy Tomlinson (Unbound, £16.99).

Read the rest of this mini-series, where we discover why we can’t get negative stuff, however small, out of our minds and ask ‘Is your brain wired to overestimate your abilities, or underestimate them?

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