60-Second Mind

Do We Care About Future Generations?

New research finds that we tend to care more about the success of future generations when we are faced with our own mortality. Christie Nicholson reports

We care about our children and the world they’ll inherit. And we care about their children. But when it comes to the generations we won’t be around to know, the ties tend to be less strong—at least when it comes to dealing with how our current behavior might impact future generations.

But researchers have found that reminders of our own mortality may motivate us to make inter-generational trade-offs that benefit future communities.

Volunteers were asked to read an article about a fatal airline accident. Then they had to play the role of the head of a company that discovered a new source of cheap, efficient energy. They had to decide how much of that energy should be used by the company today versus saving it for use by others in the future. Turns out, those who were primed to think of mortality were much more likely to save the resource for future use by others. The study is in the journal Psychological Science.

The researchers say that by making a difference for future generations we gain a sense of purpose that combats the feeling of finality when we face our inevitable mortality.

—Christie Nicholson

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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