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Projection Bias: your future self is no more than a stranger to yourself

Last Updated 2022/04/12

Updated 14/10/2020

“I never get enough sleep. I stay up late at night, because I'm Night Guy. Night Guy wants to stay up late. 'What about getting up after five hours sleep?' Oh, that's Morning Guy's problem. That's not my problem, I'm Night Guy. I stay up as late as I want. So you get up in the morning, the alarm [rings], you're exhausted, groggy… Oh, I hate that Night Guy! See, Night Guy always screws Morning Guy. There's nothing Morning Guy can do.” -Jerry Seinfeld

A neuroscientific study from 2009 by Erner-Hershfeld examined the phenomena of fiscal saving in the U.S. population. Despite the well documented increase in human lifespan, nobody is increasing their saving deposits to accommodate this. This happens due to our tendency to treat our future selves as different people entirely. Hershfeld demonstrated that the neural pathways we used to imagine our future selves were in the same location in the brain as when imagining the behaviour of others. It seems we project a continuous version of ourselves into the future which diminishes in relation to our current selves over time. A projection into the future of a few decades may as well be a stranger, so why would you save money for a stranger? How many times have you agreed to an appointment or meeting in the distant future and then reneged repeatedly when the day comes? My dentist may understandably assume I am a professional troll, and in the UK alone £558m is wasted on unused gym membership. Every smoker once accepted the offer of a cigarette believing their future self would have the willpower to say no, even though they couldn’t that day. A number of studies since the sixties have demonstrated that hungry shoppers project their future selves taste for food will reflect their current state. One such study prompted office workers to choose healthy or unhealthy snacks for a later date at different times of the day. When the workers were hungry, they chose an unhealthy snack for their future selves compared to when they had just eaten. Even a sunny day can make you much more likely to buy a car or a swimming pool. It’s easy to see the financial and business lesson here: projection bias can lead people to take out unsuitable loans, or take on more staff as they imagine themselves as much more hardworking and successful in the future. Individuals can also be deluded into thinking that once a certain status or income has been reached they will be ‘happy’. Projection bias happens when people make status-based decisions in one situation ( i.e in a particular neighbourhood, or even business market) but when they move house or upscale they then start comparing themselves to different set of people in the new area ( I like to call this the “Hyacinth Bucket syndrome”). To continue the theme from my past articles on hedonic adaptation: the major error my lie assuming you will be happy in the future at all!

Adam Sykes