Sociologist Daphne Oizerman tells how the direction of a person’s thoughts affects his fate, how the ability to combine the image of the «future self» with the present moment helps us cope with difficulties, why it is worth planning the future in days, not in years, and how the use of the path symbol strengthens our identity and helps us achieve our goals.

it matters because people tend to focus on the situation «right now». This is not a disadvantage. The inability to focus on the opportunities and challenges of the present moment can be dangerous. From an evolutionary point of view, all the surrounding people came from ancestors who focused on the present moment and, therefore, did not become food for predators that could meet on their way while they were making plans for the future.

Much of everyday life makes sense in large part because the present carries an assumption about what it may later become. Household chores make sense only as a step towards the «future self», otherwise they would be perceived as daily work, which you need to avoid. Getting good grades, maintaining health or retirement savings, as a rule, involve actions committed in the present, which will have their continuation in the distant future. The fact that we try to overcome adversity has more to do with how the «future Self» will feel in the «here-and-now» situation than with the feelings of the «present self», and this is what allows us to move on, despite the failures.

Through a series of school experiments and short studies, my laboratory proved that our sense of when the future begins can actually be changed by including what we call «identity-based motivation». It is in our power to make the future feel real, so that it can become part of the»real self». In fact, once activated, a sense of the future can provoke both immediate changes in behavior and changes that will take effect over time. During the study, we initially worked with students from low-income families, dividing them into two groups: a test and a control. During the experiment, students took part in small group activities that involved the analysis and consideration of their educational and academic identities and strategies. These identities and strategies of the present moment were associated with the same ones in the next year, as well as with adult identity. The students from the control group went to school, as always, and experienced the usual learning difficulties. They also had to think about their future, about when and who they would be, but without outside interference and purposeful structuring of these thoughts.

Before the experiment, the children from these two groups did not differ in any of the criteria that we considered: behavior, grades, attendance and homework completion. However, after a 12-week experiment, students from the test group who learned to integrate thoughts about the future with the present moment improved grades and attendance indicators, they began to spend more time doing homework and achieved higher results when performing standard tests. We found that students who mastered their adult «future self» and learned to associate it with the» Present Self » had a higher level of achievement. They learned to consider difficulties not as something impossible, but as important elements of achieving goals and were able to see school classes from the point of view of their progress in life.Subsequent studies with students from the university showed the same thing. Here, students were controlled through visualization. Some of the subjects were asked to think about themselves in the context of training that would allow them to get the grades and results they desired; others were asked to think about a university that would bring them disappointments and failures. Later, students were randomly asked to consider desirable or undesirable versions of themselves in the future. As expected, creating a connection between the present circumstances and a possible future identity was of considerable importance. Students were more focused on the learning process and considered difficulties in classes as an integral part of the path to success if they were directed to consider the option of their best identity in the most favorable university environment.

Another group of studies involved college students who needed to present their future identity over the next 4 years with educational and social events that would go the way they could go. Then we had to write down what the students represented on sheets of paper. Some of these sheets were pre-printed with a container image or with a path drawing; other sheets were completely white. We found that when students presented the desired image of themselves as a student in the future and wrote about it on the page with the image of the path, they began to study better, seek help more often and get higher grades in exams.

Imagining the path from the «self-present» to the «self-future» evokes the feeling of a real journey. People walk along the road, as if performing a concrete action, while the concept of «future» is abstract, and its needs and requirements are unclear. When we had students who wrote about «themselves-the future» on leaflets with the image of the path, the positive effect of this imagery in terms of actual success in school was very strong.

But why was the positive impact on academic success found only among participants who imagined themselves potential in the context of the path? We assumed that this advantage was due to what we know about travel and roads. Indeed, the participants said that they know better how to make a trip than how to plan their future.

We also found that fantasies that contained personal representation as an element were a key factor. To come to this conclusion, we gave some students sheets of paper on which a person was depicted walking along the road, and other sheets on which a train was depicted following on the way down. The «walkers» led to good results, but among those who were asked to imagine a passive experience on a «college train», no effect was observed.Not so long ago, we wondered whether the combination of the image of the «I-future» with the «I-present» can affect even more distant goals, such as saving for retirement. First, we asked college students and adults to imagine themselves in each of three situations: preparing for a birthday, saving money for a wedding, and preparing for the presentation of their work (for students, for exams at the end of the semester). After each scenario was presented, the participants were asked to write down how much time was left before the expected event. Half of the participants measured time in smaller units, and the other half-in larger units of time. So, when asked about preparing for the birthday, half of the participants made calculations in days, and half – in months. Regarding weddings, half of the subjects measured months, and the other half measured years.

These studies have shown that people feel the future, that they prepare for it more tightly when they think about it in smaller units of time.

We also studied the opposite situation: when the timing of future events is clear, but it is completely unclear when to start preparing for it. We tested three different scenarios: saving for your young child’s education when he reaches the age of 18, saving for your own retirement at 30, or saving for retirement at 40. Again, we found that «thinking for days» helps people feel closer to their future and they are less likely to feel that their current and future identities are not connected. This feeling is converted into a greater willingness to provide for the «self of the future».

People planned to start saving money for their child’s higher education a year later, when the measurement went for years, not days, and also for their own pension from two to 2.5 years earlier, when it came to days.

On average, people started doing something four times faster when they thought for days, not years.

This is important because, although plans don’t always work, people tend to underestimate the importance of complex interests. These additional years are important not only for how much money you will be able to save, but also for realizing the connection of times.

Thus, our research provides a clear answer: despite the fact that the future begins later, the path to success that would connect the future and the present requires immediate and constant action.

Based on the materials: «When does the future begin? A study in maximising motivation» / AEON.



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