To Change Your Life, Learn How to Trust Your Future Self

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Photo: Rob Lang/Getty Images

It’s the first week of 2017, and Science of Us is exploring the science that explains how people make meaningful changes in their lives. Handy information for resolution season.

Being a human is hard. We know the sorts of choices we ought to make, and we earnestly intend to make them, but when the time comes, we don’t. We want to lose weight, but we eat a sundae. We want to get in shape, but we sit on the couch. We want to save money, but we buy a plane ticket to Italy.

Funnily enough, scientists can’t agree why this is.

The dominant idea in psychology and popular culture alike is that we have a part of our brain that is rational and knows what’s good for us, and another part that’s impulsive and wants bad things. They struggle on and on and eventually the rational part gets tired and gives in. Game over. It’s a depressing picture.

What you might not have heard, though, is that in recent years a competing model has emerged from the field of addiction studies. In this conception, the human brain doesn’t have two warring parts, but one unitary system that prioritizes immediately rewarding options over those that pay off later.

The struggle, then, isn’t really between good and bad, but between the future and the present. And what’s exciting about this way of looking at things is that not only does this explain why some people can, and do, win the battle against temptation, but it also gives the rest of us a strategy for how we can do the same.

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Of course, if we’re going to talk about self-control, we have to talk about Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, who in the late 1960s and early ’70s famously gave 4-year-olds the choice between one snack-treat right away or two in fifteen minutes. When, years later, Mischel checked in on the participants in the so-called Marshmallow Test, he found that those who had waited did better in life in all sorts of ways. He concluded that they must possess a stable mental aptitude with which to beat back urges. In other words, willpower.

About three decades later, another psychologist, Roy Baumeister at Case Western Reserve University, developed ego-depletion theory to explain why people who try to do the right thing often wind up failing. He explained that, like a muscle, willpower eventually gets depleted and stops working. This willpower-as-muscle idea has been incredibly influential both in the field of psychology and in the popular culture. Just about every self-help book is based on it; in 2011, Baumeister co-authored his own best seller on it. In the last few years, however, a replication crisis has been ripping through social psychology, and ego depletion hasn’t fared well. The authors of a study recently published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science recruited more than 20 research centers around the world to conduct experiments involving more than 2,000 test subjects. They found no evidence for ego depletion.

So if it’s not a muscle, what is it? An alternate answer has its roots in studies carried out by a contemporary of Mischel’s. In the 1960s, George Ainslie was a young researcher who wanted to understand how pigeons chose between options that were near or far in time. For instance, Ainslie offered a pigeon the option of getting one ounce of grain right away or four ounces of grain in four seconds. Ainslie found that pigeons can’t stand to wait for their reward; they want their grain and they want it now, even if they have to settle for a much smaller amount. Essentially, the pigeons were treating the later reward as being worth less than the full four ounces — they were discounting its value.

This “delay discounting” isn’t too surprising — most of us would rather be rewarded now rather than later — but what Ainslie found next was exciting. It turned out that the pigeons were discounting future rewards in a way that caused them to engage in a seemingly irrational behavior called “preference reversal.”

In one experiment, Ainslie allowed the pigeons to choose between a button that would give them four ounces of grain in 14 seconds and a second button that would give them one ounce of grain in 10 seconds. To the pigeon, both rewards were off in what seemed like the distant future, so they chose the larger one. But if they had to wait eight seconds, then the picture looked quite different. Now the smaller reward was just two seconds away, practically in front of their faces, while the big reward was still off in the remote future of six seconds hence. So they switched their preference and grabbed the smaller, immediate reward.

They had changed their minds.

The reason came down to the mathematics of how the brain calculates reward. Ainslie’s papers are full of discounting formulae and graphs, but I prefer a metaphor. Imagine you’re walking along, and in the distance you see a tree at the foot of a mountain. The tree looks smaller than the mountain. But as you get closer to the tree it starts to get larger faster than the mountain does, until eventually the two are the same size. Then the proportion switches. As you draw close to it the tree looms higher and higher overhead. When you’re standing next to the tree that’s all you see.

Similarly, when pigeons perceive two rewards far away in the future, it’s easy for them to gauge their true relative size. But as time goes by, and the sooner reward gets closer and closer, it looms larger and larger until it comes to seem more valuable than a larger reward that’s farther away. This is the breaking point, where the order of preferences switch. The pigeon changes its mind.

Ainslie realized that humans change their minds the same way. Suppose you want to become a novelist, so you decide to start getting up every day at 5 a.m. to write. How wonderful it will be to summon the muse tomorrow, you tell yourself as you set the alarm clock and slip into bed. Next thing you know, the alarm is going off, it’s pitch black, and you find yourself smacking the alarm’s off button, thinking, Ugh, no way, and sliding back into the pillow’s sweet embrace.

Of course, eventually you do wake up, at which point you realize that you’ve screwed up. You’ve shortsightedly traded your literary career for a few moments of comfort. But you couldn’t help it. When that cozy pillow was just a few inches away, totally un-discounted, its reward value was huge compared to its distant, steeply discounted alternative.

Ainslie’s greatest insight was that while we might be hardwired to give in to temptation, there is a way for us to fight back. Unlike pigeons, humans have the ability to foresee future payoffs — not just one, but strings of them stretching off into the future. When you struggle to get out of bed early, the trade-off isn’t really between one moment of indulgence and one moment of future contentment. It’s between a moment of indulgence right now versus many years spent enjoying a successful career.

Collectively, those moments of satisfaction will add up, a process Ainslie calls “bundling.” Like a worker assembling a gift backet, the brain’s subconscious reward circuitry computes the collective value of all the different benefits that will accrue tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, and ties them all together in a package. Even if any of the individual future rewards may seem distant and hence hold little value, the whole bundle added up together amounts to something quite large—larger, even, than a single moment of pleasure in the here-and-now. The mountain will always remain larger than the tree. Even if the future benefits may seem distant and hence hold little value, they collectively can add up to something greater than a single moment of pleasure in the here and now. The mountain will always remain larger than the tree.

What you’re doing, essentially, is mentally projecting yourself into the future so you can experience the satisfaction of tomorrow’s rewards today. Intriguingly, researchers have found that people who more strongly identify with their future selves are better at self-control. In a 2009 study published in Judgment and Decision Making, psychologist Hal Hershfield showed subjects Venn diagrams with circles labeled “Current Self” and “Future Self.” Those who said they viewed the circles as mostly overlapping demonstrated more self-control in a later task: They preferred to wait for larger monetary rewards rather than taking small monetary rewards right away. Numerous other experiments have demonstrated a similar effect. “Being able to step into the shoes of our future selves,” says Hershfield, “is akin to being able to realize both the positive and the negative ramifications of our decisions.”

In order to bundle, however, there’s a major hurdle to overcome. It’s about trust.

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When I’m trying to get myself out of bed to work on my novel, I succeed by adding up all the future benefits of my writing career. But I’ll only accrue those benefits if I keep getting up early. If I don’t really believe that I’ll be able to keep resisting temptation, if I think that I might just wind up flaking out and hitting the snooze button tomorrow and the day after that, then I can’t add up those future rewards, because they’ll never arrive.

If you talk to people who’ve struggled and failed to enact positive change for themselves, you often hear the bemoan just such a lack of faith. According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the most common excuses people make for not exercising are “I’m too lazy,” “I think exercise is boring,” and “I’m not athletic.” These aren’t judgments about the exercise; these are judgments about the people themselves. They believe that they’ll flake, and that prophecy is self-fulfilling.

In the mid-1970s, psychologist Stephen Maisto conducted an experiment that would be forbidden today. He gave recovering alcoholics either a spiked punch or a similar-tasting virgin one. He then told half of each group that they’d just consumed alcohol, and the other half that they had not. As you might expect, half the test subjects experienced a sudden surge in craving. But it wasn’t strictly the ones who’d consumed alcohol. Whether they actually had or not, it was the ones who believed they had. The alcoholics who thought they’d had a drink believed that once they fell off the wagon they’d be hopeless, and therefore couldn’t bundle. So they couldn’t.

Conversely, people who are absolutely certain about their future behavior face no willpower struggles. Bundling is easy because there’s no doubt that the stream of future rewards will arrive.

This effect was elegantly demonstrated by a study of Orthodox Jewish smokers published in the journal Psychopharmacology. The researchers asked their subjects to refrain from smoking both on normal weekdays, when they were normally free to smoke as they pleased, and on the Sabbath, when Orthodox Jews are forbidden to smoke. They found that the smokers felt the greatest cravings on weekdays. On the Sabbath, they hardly felt any cravings at all. Now, nicotine is an addictive substance, one that directly interferes with the brain’s pleasure circuitry. Yet these men didn’t crave it on the Sabbath. They knew, both consciously and subconsciously, that smoking wasn’t in the cards. The religious prohibition was too strong. So their confidence in their future behavior was rock-solid.

As Ainslie puts it, desire is motivated. We tend to think of desire as something immutable, a thing that you either possess or you don’t. But if we don’t really think that something is available to us, we don’t want it. If we trust ourselves enough that we believe we won’t give in to temptation, that temptation is effectively not available and we stop wanting it.

To conquer temptation and achieve change, then, you need to dispel the fog of self-doubt and develop confidence in your own future behavior.

But how can you do that?

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If you think you can give yourself confidence by mouthing affirmations in the mirror, think again. Studies have found that at a subconscious level, the way we form beliefs about ourselves isn’t about what we say or even what we think, but what we see ourselves doing. If we want to change our beliefs, we first have to change the behavior we observe.

But that’s paradoxical. In order to change your behavior, you need to bundle, and to bundle, you need to trust yourself. But you won’t trust yourself if all you’ve perceived in the past is untrustworthy behavior. Catch-22!

The solution is to stop worrying about the behavior and focus on your self-trust. The way to do this is via a process I call “the algorithm.” If you follow it assiduously, you will replace the downward spiral of self-fulfilling self-doubt with an upward spiral of self-trust. Here’s how it works.

Step one: Choose a simple rule for yourself, one so simple and clear that you can’t possibly fail.

Step two: Make sure you follow step one.

The point is not to build a habit, but to establish a pattern of evidence for your own brain to observe. Find a very doable piece of behavior to adopt, then focus on doing it, no matter what. A person who wants to get up early might say, “I’m going to set my alarm five minutes early.” A person who wants to stop being a slob might say, “I’m going to make my bed before I leave the bedroom each morning.” A person who wants to learn French might say, “I’m going to do ten vocabulary flash cards on the train ride to work.”

The goals are so small they seem almost useless. But keep at them. As you establish credibility, you can use your new bundling power to set more ambitious goals — to do 20 flashcards, then 50. To start reading French websites. To become a French novelist. In time, the project becomes part of your identity, and your investment so enormous, that you dare not let it slip away. Not only is continuing effortless, it actually becomes hard to stop.

The intriguing thing about the algorithm is that although the science underpinning it is new, the technique itself has been around for years. Take Alcoholics Anonymous. The program is all about tackling an enormous problem by setting modest goals — going to meetings, staying sober “one day at a time” — and continually verifying that you’re on track. Likewise with Weight Watchers: The idea is to impose a clear set of rules on the otherwise messy business of eating, and to keep checking in to ensure compliance.

The algorithm isn’t rocket science. People even stumble onto it on their own. People like Gerry Duffy, a 26-year-old Irishman who was heavier than he wanted to be. Every time he tried to lose weight, it came right back. Then one day he saw a particularly mortifying photo of himself and decided he had to get serious. He started taking a half-hour walk after dinner each night. In time, that half-hour became an hour. He started to feel fit, and that motivated him to eat better. He lost weight. He started to jog. As he became lean and strong he gained the confidence he needed to quit his job and start his own business. Today he is one of the world’s leading endurance athletes and winner of the U.K. Deca-Ironman Challenge, a competition that involves completing a triathlon every day for ten straight days. For Duffy, it now takes a lot of effort not to exercise every single day.

Duffy is just one random example. There are others like him all around — people who felt trapped by their behavior but managed to break free. They did it not by learning new habits, but by learning to change what they wanted.

This new way of looking at self-control is a bit more complicated and less intuitive than the standard angel-on-one-shoulder-devil-on-the-other view. But it’s worth the effort, because unlike the standard view, it allows us to hope — to imagine a state of being in which we can live life the way we want to without struggle. To change for the better, for good.

To Change Your Life, Learn How to Trust Your Future Self