I’m not used to Daylight Saving Time. In Phoenix, Arizona, where I lived for most of the last decade, they don’t change their clocks. So until I moved to Brooklyn last summer, all I had to do was to make sure that I had the correct time difference when I called outside the state. Now I’m begrudging last night’s loss of one hour – especially since I’ve just now realized that I’m supposed to spring forward, rather than set back, the clock.
The fact is, we lose time all the time. Try to remember what you had for lunch, or what you did at work, exactly one week ago and you’ll see what I mean. Psychologists have shown that people tend to undervalue the present, as compared to the past or the future. Part of the reason is that we overestimate our future ability to recall everyday details. Also, we mistakenly predict that experiences that appear mundane right now, will also seem trivial to us in the future.
In a study published last October in Psychological Science, Tim Zhang and his colleagues from Harvard Business School reasoned that, because we consistently underappreciate the present, we may also underestimate the pleasure of rediscovering experiences from our mundane past. That is, whereas we may believe that our future selves will be bored by the rediscovery of our current events, our prediction may be wrong. The researchers predicted that today’s inconsequential details will be quite compelling to our future selves. If so, our present lack of foresight may decrease our motivation to document today’s experiences.
To find out, the scientists asked undergraduate to create “time capsules” at the beginning of the summer, and to open them three months later, at the beginning of the school year. The time capsules included the students’ written descriptions of various current experiences: the last social event they attended, a recent conversation, a recent Facebook status update, a question from a recent test, etc. After creating the time capsules, the students indicated how curious they thought they would be, in a few months’ time, to see what they had documented, how surprised they would be about the content, and how meaningful and interesting they would find each item, in a 1 through 7 scale.
Three months later, the subjects received a follow-up email that listed the prompts to their time capsule answers. Before viewing their responses, they indicated how curious they were about each of them. Once they viewed each element, they also reported how surprised they were by it, and how meaning and interesting they found it. As the researchers had expected, the participants mispredicted the reactions of their future selves to the rediscovery: they underestimated their later curiosity, surprise, and interest.
Next, the researchers wondered about how people might value the rediscovery of everyday versus extraordinary experiences. To answer this question, they asked a pool of online participants to write about a recent conversation, and predict their curiosity, enjoyment and interest in re-reading their description in a few months. The subjects also indicated how ordinary or extraordinary the conversation had been, in a scale of 1 through 7. Seven months later, the scientists asked the subjects to indicate how curious they were to read their previous responses. After they read what they had written, subjects also indicated how enjoyable and interesting they had found the experience. Again, people underestimated how compelling they would find the rediscovery process, but the discrepancy between the predicted and the actual curiosity, interest, and enjoyment was largest for the more ordinary experiences. Whereas subjects predicted the value of rediscovering memorable moments with relative accuracy, they once again underestimated how much they would care about the simple mundane details of their day-to-day past life.
The results were similar when another group of subjects was randomly assigned to rediscover, three months later, what they did with their romantic partner on Valentine’s Day versus what the couple did on a typical day near February 14th. Consistent with the previous findings, participants erred about the value of rediscovering everyday events versus extraordinary events (which, by definition, are more memorable).
Finally, the scientists wondered whether mispredicting the value of rediscovery might lead people to forego the recording of present experiences. To find out, they asked people to choose between documenting a recent conversation and watching a 5-minute video of a talk show. Regardless of their preference, subjects then completed both tasks. One month later, the subjects were asked to choose between reading their previous description and watching a different 5-minute video. Initially, only a minority of participants chose to write about their experience instead of watching the video, but one month later the majority of subjects preferred reading over watching.
Overall, this study shows that underestimating the value of current experiences leads people to make time-inconsistent choices. We fail to document the present, only to wish we had done it, in the future. At the core of this contradiction is the illusion of self-immutability. We are notoriously bad at predicting how we will feel in the future, and we make the mistake of using our current mental state as a heuristic to make projections about our future feelings. Fundamentally, we do not believe that our future selves will be any different from our current selves, despite our whole life histories screaming to the contrary.
Today’s tedium is tomorrow’s thrill.
So instead of bemoaning the one hour loss from last night, I may take a few minutes to write about a recent conversation with a family member, a recent song I listened to, and a recent shopping trip. Then I’ll seal the record in a closed envelope, to be opened when I set the clock back in the fall. I hope I’m as happily surprised as one of the participants in the study by Zhang and colleagues:
“Re-reading this event of doing mundane stuff with my daughter has certainly brightened my day. I’m glad I chose that event to write about because of the incredible joy it gives me at this moment.”