One problem with the future is its vagueness. While you are able to imagine in your mind going to the gas station or cooking dinner in general, the exact details of these activities are not clear. You don’t know which pump you’ll use at the gas station, or precisely what time you’ll remove the pizza from the oven. In this way, the future is fuzzy. This fuzziness can make the future less appealing. Remember the marshmallow experiment that tested the willpower of children to resist the temptation to eat a marshmallow placed on a table in front of them, so they could receive two marshmallows after they waited? Research suggests that if that one marshmallow was made more abstract—such as hiding it from view or just showing a picture of it—the reward would become less appealing and more similar in appeal to receiving two marshmallows at a future time. On the flip side, making the future less fuzzy by focusing on the details—eating double the marshmallows currently being presented—could also make the future marshmallows more attractive than the present singular marshmallow. In this way kids would have an easier time resisting the one marshmallow now in exchange for the two marshmallows in the future.
Perhaps a combination of this fuzziness research (i.e., delay of gratification research) with recent neuroeconomics research—linking impulsivity with a lack of future thinking—could be useful for clinicians who are developing treatment plans for impulsive individuals. Because the future is fuzzy and impulsive people have an especially hard time imagining it, clinical treatments could involve de-emphasizing the present, making it more abstract, and building a concrete image of the future. For example, while it may be quicker, easier, and cheaper to buy fast food for dinner—immediate rewards that are all very desirable—people could learn to visualize larger future rewards when deciding what to eat, such as avoiding ailments like obesity and Type-2 diabetes. They could also avoid driving past their favorite fast food restaurants and only stock their cupboards with nutritious foods so the most visually salient meal options are healthy ones. This could help shift the attractive light from being cast on the present desire for fast food to instead being on the future desire for a healthy body.
For impulsive individuals who repeatedly make decisions that satisfy their current desires at the expense of their future needs, the negative effects on their health can be significant. Given the host of public health issues that involve impulsivity, research in neuroeconomics could prove important. Future research could measure the effects of an intervention on the brain. Can we get impulsive people to produce activity in their brain that shows they’re thinking about the future in a concrete way, making them look and act more patiently in the laboratory? Do these interventions lead to real-life choices to invest in the future and not give in to present impulses? Not to mention, could adapting the mindset that the future is worth waiting for help the rest of us keep some of our New Year’s resolutions?
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.