When does the future begin? Time metrics matter, connecting present and future selves

Psychol Sci. 2015 Jun;26(6):816-25. doi: 10.1177/0956797615572231. Epub 2015 Apr 23.


People assume they should attend to the present; their future self can handle the future. This seemingly plausible rule of thumb can lead people astray, in part because some future events require current action. In order for the future to energize and motivate current action, it must feel imminent. To create this sense of imminence, we manipulated time metric--the units (e.g., days, years) in which time is considered. People interpret accessible time metrics in two ways: If preparation for the future is under way (Studies 1 and 2), people interpret metrics as implying when a future event will occur. If preparation is not under way (Studies 3-5), they interpret metrics as implying when preparation should start (e.g., planning to start saving 4 times sooner for a retirement in 10,950 days instead of 30 years). Time metrics mattered not because they changed how distal or important future events felt (Study 6), but because they changed how connected and congruent their current and future selves felt (Study 7).

Keywords: future; judgment; motivation; open materials; situated cognition; time.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Forecasting*
  • Humans
  • Judgment*
  • Male
  • Motivation*
  • Self Concept
  • Time*
  • Young Adult