Last year (or thereabouts) I published an article about weight loss and intractable futures challenges. One of the things I talked about in that piece was how future selves– our image of our selves in the future, and the degree of connectedness we feel toward that self– can help reinforce choices we make in the present. Today I came across another project, based at Stanford, exploring future self construction through virtual avatars and their utility in creasing savings behavior.

Here are a couple links and abstracts:

Hal E. Hershfield, "Future self-continuity: how conceptions of the future self transform inter temporal choice," Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences v. 1235 (October 2011), 30-43.

With life expectancy dramatically increasing throughout much of the world, people have to make choices with a longer future in mind than they ever had to before. Yet, many indicators suggest that undersaving for the long term often occurs: in America, for instance, many individuals will not be able to maintain their preretirement standard of living in retirement. Previous research has tried to understand problems with intertemporal choice by focusing on the ways in which people treat present and future rewards. In this paper, the author reviews a burgeoning body of theoretical and empirical work that takes a different viewpoint, one that focuses on how perceptions of the self over time can dramatically affect decision making. Specifically, when the future self shares similarities with the present self, when it is viewed in vivid and realistic terms, and when it is seen in a positive light, people are more willing to make choices today that may benefit them at some point in the years to come.

Hal Hershfield, Daniel Goldstein, William Sharpe, Jesse Fox, Leo Yeykelis, Laura Carstensen, and Jeremy Bailenson, "Increasing Saving Behavior Through Age-Progressed Renderings of the Future Self," Journal of Marketing Research v. 48 (2011) S23-S37.

Many people fail to save what they will need for retirement. Research on excessive discounting of the future suggests that removing the lure of immediate rewards by precommitting to decisions or elaborating the value of future rewards both can make decisions more future oriented. The authors explore a third and complementary route, one that deals not with present and future rewards but with present and future selves. In line with research that shows that people may fail, because of a lack of belief or imagination, to identify with their future selves, the authors propose that allowing people to interact with age-progressed renderings of themselves will cause them to allocate more resources to the future. In four studies, participants interacted with realistic computer renderings of their future selves using immersive virtual reality hardware and interactive decision aids. In all cases, those who interacted with their virtual future selves exhibited an increased tendency to accept later monetary rewards over immediate ones.