When faced with intertemporal choices, which have consequences that unfold over time, we often discount the future, preferring smaller immediate rewards often at the expense of long-term benefits. How psychologically connected one feels to one’s future self-influences such temporal discounting. Psychological connectedness consists in sharing psychological properties with past or future selves, but connectedness comes in degrees. If one feels that one is not psychologically connected to one’s future self, one views that self like a different person and is less likely to wait for the future reward. Increasing perceived psychological connectedness to one’s future self may lead to more far-sighted decisions. Episodic prospection may help in this regard. Episodic prospection is our ability to ‘pre-experience’ the future by mentally simulating it, drawing on information from episodic memory and other sources. Episodic memory and prospection are thought to involve a special form of consciousness, which underpins the capacity to appreciate the connection between one’s past, present, and future selves. Simulating the future self through prospection may increase felt psychological connectedness and support future-oriented decision-making. Yet this is where a puzzle arises. The imagery of episodic memory and prospection is perspectival: often one views the visualised scenario from a detached perspective, seeing oneself from-the-outside as if viewing another person. The aim of this paper is to characterise how the perspectival imagery of prospection relates to psychological connectedness, and to show that even though such imagery involves a detached perspective it can still be used to help reward one’s future self.
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For a discussion of how perspectival imagery in mental time travel relates to emotion and discounting the future, see McCarroll (2019).
From a normative point of view, the optimal way to choose between smaller immediate and larger later rewards means that preferences should be consistent across time, and would be expressed by an exponential discount function. Yet temporal discounting across domains typically describes a hyperbola-like function, with the discount rate declining with time, rather than the exponential function with a constant discount rate (Meyerson and Green, 1995). In fact, one way to measure the discounting of delayed rewards is to calculate the area under the curve (Meyerson, Green, and Warusawitharana, 2001). Our aim in this paper is not to take a stance on the function best described by temporal discounting, nor to explain the reasons why we choose inconsistently across time, but to look at one possible mechanism that may attenuate temporal discounting however it occurs.
For differences and similarities between the ‘temporal discounting’ and the ‘delay of gratification’ paradigms, see Reynolds and Schiffbauer (2005).
We are open to the possibility that not all failures to delay gratification involve such a trade-off between subsequent selves – at least, not at a conscious level. In this paper we are referring to cases which do seem to involve a trade-off between a present and future self.
The classic experiments involving young children waiting (or not) to be rewarded with marshmallows, by Mischel and colleagues, showed that delaying gratification and resisting the temptation of the smaller immediate reward was correlated with better scores in school and less problems with drugs and alcohol in later life (e.g., Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez, 1989, but see Watts, Duncan, & Quan, 2018).
Interestingly, the first study to test the relation between psychological connectedness and temporal discounting (Frederick, 2003) found no correlation between connectedness (operationalised as ‘similarity’) and discount rates. Frederick himself offers two explanations as to why no correlation was found in this study. He suggests that ‘it might indicate that people (implicitly) endorse the simple view of personal identity – that they believe that they are the same person through time, and that changes in personality (or “connectedness”) is just not one of the things that should affect their valuation of future rewards’ (Frederick, 2003, p. 99). Or it could simply be that the type of ‘matching task’ employed in the study, whereby respondents were asked to report the amount of money they would require in 1/5/10/20/30/40 years to make them indifferent to receiving $100 tomorrow, may be too abstract and ‘reflect idiosyncratic algorithms for “solving the task” as much as they reflect anything about time preference per se’ (Frederick, 2003, p. 99).
In the psychological literature investigating the relation between psychological connectedness and intertemporal choice, the tendency to not wait for the delayed reward, especially one in the farther future as opposed to the near future, is often termed ‘impatience’, to be contrasted with ‘patience’, which means that one is more willing to wait for the larger later reward. Arguably, these terms are imprecise, but we employ them here because they are used in the literature we draw on.
Bartels and Urminsky’s (2011) series of five studies distinguishes connectedness from other factors associated with time preference. They provide evidence that the impact of connectedness on long-term discount rates cannot be explained by factors such as change in general life circumstances, uncertainty about the future and one’s future preferences, present-bias (the general tendency to be more impatient for outcomes in the immediate future than for distant future outcomes), or differences in the affective appraisal of future outcomes. They also found that, at least in one study, the effects of manipulating connectedness on discounting generalised to a demographically broad adult population; in particular, they found no reduction in the effect of the manipulation on older participants.
In some cases, for example in individuals with episodic amnesia, this capacity is impaired (for discussion see below). Further, there is debate in the literature whether nonhuman animals have the capacity to mentally travel in time. As our focus in this paper is solely on human subjects this is not a debate we enter into here, but see, e.g., Clayton et al. (2003); Suddendorf and Corballis (2007).
Only two studies to date have directly tested this hypothesis on individuals with episodic amnesia and the evidence is mixed, with one study failing to find any attenuation of temporal discounting (Palombo et al., 2015) and another finding attenuation of temporal discounted (Kwan et al., 2015) when individuals with episodic amnesia were cued to engage in episodic prospection.
Hoerl and McCormack also think it is plausible that episodic prospection might reduce the subjective temporal distance of a future event, which is a further factor that has been implicated in temporal discounting (2016, p. 243).
See Rice (2010) for an excellent review of the empirical evidence on field and observer perspectives in episodic memory.
Nichols is discussing evidence by Klein et al., (2002), and Tulving (1993), and provides the examples of patients D.B. and K.C., who ascribed their character traits consistently across time, and consistent with ratings from family members. An intriguing question is whether it could be that the spared performance of amnesiac individuals on intertemporal choice tasks, whose discounting rates can even be modified by cues prompting them to ‘imagine specific personal future events temporally contiguous with the receipt of delayed reward’ (Kwan et al., 2015, p. 432), is partly underpinned by stored semantic trait knowledge which makes them feel psychologically connected to their future selves.
Our focus in this paper has been on the relation between observer perspectives in episodic prospection and psychological connectedness. However, we do not want to suggest that field perspectives are not relevant to overcoming temporal discounting or delaying gratification. One possibility is that the differing visual perspectives may support future-oriented decision-making at different temporal distances. Because field perspectives tend to focus more on subjective details, they may make rewards in the near future more salient, increasing feelings of continuity in a phenomenological sense (autonoesis) (Prebble et al., 2013). Because observer perspectives involve a more abstract way of thinking, such images may make an event in the farther future more salient, promoting continuity on a conceptual level (psychological connectedness). In fact, there is evidence that remembering or imagining an event in one’s life may involve both perspectives (Rice and Rubin, 2009). Perhaps this multiperspectival imagery blends both facets of the self travelling in subjective time—autonoesis and psychological connectedness—focusing on a mix of salient information that may be relevant for an intertemporal choice.
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This paper is the result of work done on the project ‘The cornerstone of self-control: A philosophical investigation into the role of mental time travel in overcoming temporal discounting.’ We gratefully acknowledge the funding for this project, which was a grant provided by the Templeton Foundation through Florida State University’s project ‘The Philosophy and Science of Self-Control’. This work is also supported by the French National Research Agency in the framework of the “Investissements d’avenir” program (ANR-15-IDEX-02). Versions of this paper were presented at the workshop ‘Memory, Mental Time Travel, and Self-Control’, at Roma Tre University; the workshop ‘Whole Lives, Time, and Selfhood’, at Deakin University; and the Australasian Association of Philosophy conference at Victoria University, Wellington. The authors would like to thank the participants at those events for helpful comments and discussion, especially Dorothea Debus, Francesco Ferretti, Natalie Gold, Richard Heersmink, Christoph Hoerl, Teresa McCormack, Kirk Michaelian, Fabio Paglieri, Marya Schechtman, Kim Sterelny, Patrick Stokes, John Sutton, Dan Weijers, and Markus Werning. We would also like to thank Bence Nanay, Gerardo Viera, Kevin Lande, Loraine Gérardin-Laverge, Constant Bonard, Alma Barner, Peter Fazekas, Magdalini Koukou, Denis Perrin, André Sant’Anna, Reza Mosmer, Alberto Guerrero-Velázquez, Paloma Muñoz, and two anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments on previous drafts.
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McCarroll, C.J., Cosentino, E. Rewarding one’s Future Self: Psychological Connectedness, Episodic Prospection, and a Puzzle about Perspective. Rev.Phil.Psych. 11, 449–467 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-020-00460-2
- Mental time travel
- Temporal discounting
- Observer perspectives
- Psychological connectedness