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“Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.” It’s an appealing philosophy to some, but for an average person in the modern world, on any given day the utterer is roughly 26,000 times more likely to be wrong than right about tomorrow’s survivability. More often than not, one must answer for all reckless consumption and merriment; yet most of us continue to make choices which are detrimental to our futures.
Almost everyone occasionally falls victim to this defect of human reasoning, an irrational bias referred to as temporal myopia. Like visual myopia, temporal myopia causes clarity to decrease with distance, but it applies to our perception of the future rather than of our sense of sight. Instead of inspiring caution, our brains’ typical response to this uncertainty is to sharply reduce the importance of the future in our decision-making, an effect known as hyperbolic discounting. Consequences which occur at a later time, good or bad, tend to have a lot less bearing on our choices the more distantly they fall in the future… even when one’s life is at stake.
For instance, the eating-drinking-merriment philosophy may sound like that of a warrior before battle, but hundreds of thousands of heart patients embrace that strategy daily, and against the better advice of their doctors. According to Dr. Edward Miller, the dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University, over half a million people undergo coronary-artery bypass graft surgery every year in the US, and of those only about ten percent make the necessary lifestyle changes to prevent future surgeries, chest pains, and premature death. About ninety percent of those patients decide to forego survival and comfort in favor of the short-term pleasures of unhealthy foods and laziness.
This irrational affliction is ubiquitous in humanity, though most of the time the risks are not so immediate as death. Consider the oft-used example of monetary rewards. If someone were to offer you the choice between $50 right now or $100 tomorrow, the latter would seem the clear choice. But as the delay gap widens, the importance of the extra $50 quickly diminishes for most people, despite the fact that its actual value is constant. For instance, confronted with a choice between $50 today or $100 one year from now, would you still wait for the $100? Statistically speaking, the vast majority will take the $50. But the pattern follows a hyperbola, so once a certain time threshold is crossed, the devaluing effect of time diminishes; for example, most will opt to take $100 in ten years over $50 in nine years.
In essence, hyperbolic discounting is the human tendency to prefer smaller payoffs now over larger payoffs later, which leads one to largely disregard the future when it requires sacrifices in the present. Being mortal creatures with limited lifespans and resources, the human survival instinct has evolved to appreciate that one cannot enjoy a conserved resource tomorrow if one doesn’t survive today. This hard-wired tendency may be the bias behind our temporal short-sightedness, causing many people to make decisions which lead to short-term happiness and long-term disaster.
It turns out that hyperbolic discounting is the same logical flaw that causes people to over-commit their future schedules; Research has found that most people will make commitments long in advance that they would never make if the commitment required immediate action. The same defective reasoning causes people to underestimate the future consequences of drug use, unhealthy diets, procrastination, unprotected sex, infidelity… basically anything that’s any fun at all.
Financial institutions such as banks and credit card companies build their businesses on hyperbolic discounting, because borrowing money and paying interest are actions which spend future resources for benefit in the present. In a society where credit is available to almost anyone, hyperbolic discounting has created an environment where it’s rare for people to save up for expensive items, even when interest rates are so high that the amount paid is much greater.
This undervaluation of the future is not rational, yet almost everyone is subject to it to some degree. Fortunately, understanding the psychology of hyperbolic discounting can help one to avoid its detrimental effects. Because one’s self-centered biases are at the heart of the problem, the best approach is to take an objective view of any decision that has future consequences. Some suggest that when you are confronted with such a choice, you should imagine that the decision belongs to someone else— perhaps a close friend— and that you have been asked for advice. Removing oneself from consideration makes one less blind to the future consequences, but taking rational actions based on on that new insight can still be harder than nailing Jell-o to a tree; being aware of the consequences doesn’t mean that they are assigned the appropriate importance. Seeking a truly objective view from a trusted individual often provides the most practical input.
The spongy matter housed within the human skull is certainly extraordinary, but it’s an imperfect machine. There are many tasks for which the human brain is ably suited, but clearly it can be surprisingly bad at planning for the future. And often we fail to learn from such mistakes, which is why most people have more than one regret. Of course our mortality urges us to consider the now over the later, so sometimes the possibility of one’s death plays an important role in decision-making. But as medicine advances and lifespans increase, it will be interesting to see what becomes of temporal myopia. Perhaps over time our minds will evolve to truly appreciate that it is important to seize the day, but not at the expense of tomorrow.
Editor’s Note: This article originally used Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) as an example of third-party support; but further investigation showed that AA is not a well-designed program, hence it made a poor example.