The Moral Universe

The Moral Universe

Dialogues on the psychology of right and wrong

When Neglecting One’s Future Benefits Others


Sometimes the same psychological beliefs that do a disservice to oneself can provide a benefit others, a paradox demonstrated by a forthcoming article by Dan Bartels, Trevor Kvaran, and Shaun Nichols. The article examines how people's views about the nature of "the self" affect their generosity toward others. In particular, the article centers on ideas raised by philosopher, Derek Parfit, who suggested that one's sense of self depends on degree of connectedness, which changes over time--we feel maximally connected to our present selves (i.e., my self today is who I am) whereas we feel more weakly connected to future versions of our selves (i.e. my self in 50 years--god-willing I make it--is perhaps a different person altogether than who I am today). This sense of connectedness to one's future self (hereafter, connectedness) is rather malleable, and experimenters have been able to push around connectedness through various methods including virtual reality simulations that present an image of one's own face aged 30 years into the future and simpler tasks that merely ask people to contemplate the futures. Bartels and colleagues' research capitalized on these methods to test how connectedness influences generosity.

Previous work on connectedness, most notably work by both Bartels and Hal Ersner-Hershfield and their colleagues, has demonstrated that increases in connectedness are associated with making better financial decisions for oneself--the kind of financial decisions that pay off in the long run. People with strong connections to their future self are willing to save more, spend less, and forgo immediate cash rewards in exchange for future cash rewards of greater value. This is because they recognize that their actions today (e.g., buying that pair of Aldens, or Louboutins) affects their future selves (e.g., how much money one has for retirement). People with less connection to their future selves might fail to consider that their present actions affect their future well-being.

If people with greater connectedness are more generous to their future selves, then will they be more or less generous to others (in the present)? One possibility is that greater connectedness makes people think about their legacy, and would therefore increase generosity. The second possibility, borne out in Bartels and colleagues' studies is that less connectedness benefits others. This is because when one feels relatively distant from the future self, spending money on others does not seem to represent a withdrawal from one's future bank account.

U.S. military Humanitarian Service Medal given for acts of kindness and generosity

An initial study asked people to rate their sense of connectedness by answering two questions about the likelihood that their present "personality, temperament, major likes and dislikes, beliefs, values, ambitions, life goals, and ideals" will be the same in the future, and how much overlap they feel between the person they are now and the person they will be a year for now. To measure generosity, participants were told they would be entered into a lottery and then had to indicate how much of their potential study earnings they would like to donate to a charity, Save the Children. Unbeknownst to participants, one version of the study stated that the lottery would occur in one week whereas another version of the study stated that the lottery would occur in one year. When the lottery was to occur in one week, connectedness did not affect charitable donations, but when the lottery was to occur in one year, the participants who felt low (versus high) connectedness to their future selves donated significantly more.

Two follow-up studies examined the causal impact of connectedness on generosity by asking participants to read one of two articles--one article conveyed evidence that the self remains stable over time whereas the other provided evidence that the self is highly susceptible to change over time. Participants were again asked how much of future earnings they would like to donate to charity. Participants who read the article indicating that the self is susceptible to change again displayed greater generosity.

A final study asked people questions both about their connectedness to their future self and their connectedness to the ten people closest to them, and also asked questions about how much money they would give to these ten people (instead of keeping money for themselves). In this study the difference between self and social connectedness (how much people felt connected to their ten closest loved ones versus how much people felt connected to their future selves) predicted giving. People gave more when they felt more connected to a loved one than they did to their own future self.

These studies show that what is good for oneself may not be good for others, and vice versa. Maintaining a sense of connectedness to one's future benefits oneself leads people to save money on behalf of that future rendition of themselves, but leads people to commit less money to helping others. Conversely, the people whose future selves appear to be distant strangers show greater generosity toward others. This finding raises the interesting possibility that the most indulgent among us--those who don't consider that today's cigarette, chocolate mousse, beer, or impulse-purchase will affect the health and well-being of one's future self--might in fact also be the most willing to part with today's paycheck on behalf of others.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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