Episode 41: Hal Hershfield – Bridge the Gap

Episode 41: Hal Hershfield – Bridge the Gap


Is it hard to make progress on the things that matter most to you? Then you might need to work on your relationship with your “future self,” says Hal Hershfield, psychologist and assistant professor of marketing at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. On this podcast, Hal and I discuss what your “future self” is all about, how you can use it to help you accomplish your goals, and how to avoiding being too future-focused.



Bio: Psychologist Hal Hershfield studies how thinking about time transforms the emotions and alters the judgments and decisions people make. While he was a Ph.D. student at Stanford University, his research concentrated on the psychology of long-term decision-making and how time affects people’s lives — specifically at a moment when Americans are living longer and saving less.

Hershfield says, “We’re in an interesting time to be conducting research on these topics because there are so many methodological tools available. I take the same question and try to investigate it from different angles, whether from a psychological perspective or a marketing perspective or even more of a managerial perspective. ‘What are the psychological components of saving, and how can we help people along the process of their looming retirement?’ When it helps shed light on the question, I use methods like neuroimaging, eye tracking, archival and big data analyses, and even virtual reality.”


Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners. We help companies achieve ambitious goals by strengthening leadership throughout the organization. I created this podcast to share ideas that you can use to become a more powerful and courageous leader. Here with me today is Hal Hershfield. Hal is an assistant professor of marketing at the Anderson School of Management at UCLA. He’s a fascinating guy. He’s done some super interesting research about who we are today, who we want to become, and how we bridge that gap, and why it’s hard to bridge that gap. I’m super excited to speak with him and to have him at the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Hal, thank you so much for joining us on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Hal: Thanks so much for having me, Peter. I appreciate it.

Peter: Hal, share with us the focus of your research. Just give us an overview, and then we’ll jump in.

Hal: Sure thing. A lot of my work really looks at how we can understand and help people get from who they are today to where they want to be, and why it’s so hard for them to, well, as you said, bridge that gap. We often see people say that they want to do things. They say they want to eat healthy. They say they want to save more money. They say they want to be more environmentally friendly, and yet when push comes to shove, it’s really hard to actually take that leap and do those sorts of things.

Peter: This might seem like a stupid question, but why? Why is it hard?

Hal: It’s not a stupid question, and it’s a question that’s been puzzling scholars, and theorists, and academics for decades if not centuries. I think if you were to really boil it down, the reason that it’s so hard to do these things is because the present is so powerful. There’s a great quote from a colleague of mine, Liz Dunn. She said that the present acts as a magnifying glass for our emotions. I thought that just really hit the nail on the head, which is that, you know, if we were to step back and look at our lives from sort of a high up vantage point, it would be easy to see how it would be better to go to the gym that day, that day, and that day. When I’m in it, here I am today, it’s a lot easier to sleep in. It’s a lot easier to eat that higher calorie, richer food lunch than it is to take the salad, or get up at 5 and go to the gym, et cetera. All these things represent that tension between doing something we want to do right now, versus what we know we should do for the long run.

Peter: I’ve written about this a little bit and I know you have, and I’ve thought a lot about the importance of creating an environment that makes it more likely that you’re going to do the things that you want to do versus not. What role does that play in it, or are we relying on something that is ephemeral, and we should develop a stronger internal sense of our future?

Hal: No, I think it plays a huge role. Your point about the environment is why interventions that rely on just changing default settings and default options are often so effective. We know one of the most effective ways to get people to save for retirement is to essentially make it automatic. You’re automatically enrolled in a retirement plan. You don’t have to make that decision right now.

Peter: It’s the Thaler nudge.

Hal: Exactly. There’s a lot of those that we see. We can, of course, set up the cafeteria so that the salad and the carrots and the celery are up front, and the pizza and the junk food is in the back corner or something like that, right? At a certain point, it can’t just be the environment that we have to change. We also have to think about changing our willingness to step forward, and get to the table, and make these changes ourselves, and make these decisions ourselves.

Peter: You’ve done this great research I would love for you to describe, around the brain, and strangers, and your future self.

Hal: One of the angles that my research has taken is that people have a hard time making these decisions because they fundamentally feel some sort of emotional disconnect between their current selves and their future selves. The analogy that we like to use, and others have used as well, is that the future self almost seems as if it’s a stranger. Another person altogether. In some early research, we started with the previous finding that the brain is actually really good at figuring out what’s me, and what’s not me. There’s some distinction in the brain. When we see another face, or we think about another person, we see one neural signature, versus when we think about ourselves, we see another one. What we reasoned was, if the future self is thought of as another person, we might see those same brain differences when people think about, see, write about, et cetera, their future selves. That’s exactly what we found. In the brain, it looks like, across the board, the future self seems more like another person than it seems like ourselves.

I really should be clear here. That’s true in general. Of course, there’s individual differences, right? There’s some people who see their future self as very much the same, or an extension, or similar to who they are now, and then you don’t see those differences as much.

Peter: Then, I imagine those people you might find stick to their diets, or save more money, or things like that.

Hal: That’s the thinking. I mean, we haven’t looked specifically at dieting, but we’ve looked at other tasks that rely on patience. What it seems like is that when people are able to see that emotional connection between their current selves and their future selves, they’re the ones who are more patient. They’re the ones who have accrued more assets over time. Even when you control for other factors that might play a role there.

Peter: Think about those marshmallow experiment participants. The 6 year olds back in the 70s. For the listeners, Walter Michel took kids, 5, 6 year olds, I think, and he gave them a marshmallow, and he put them in a room, and he said, “You could eat this marshmallow now, but if you wait,” I think it was around 20 minutes, “and you don’t eat it, I’ll give you 2 marshmallows.”
Some kids ate them right away. Some kids managed to hold off, and I wonder whether, if you looked at the brains of the kids who were able to hold off even those 20 minutes, whether they would have a stronger sense of their future selves as themselves versus a stranger.

Hal: That’s a great question. It’s a really great question. I don’t know the answer to that, but you would imagine that maybe they would. It could be sort of a general characteristic that plays in even that young. I don’t know the answer, though. It’s a fascinating topic, though, because it takes a long time for the neural structures to develop that can help kids and adolescents even think about the future beyond a certain period of time, right?

Peter: Right. That’s interesting.

Hal: It’s a really interesting question. Those kids who waited, they end up having higher SAT scores later, and all sorts of positive outcomes.

Peter: That’s exactly what I’m thinking. They’ve been able to achieve their goals in ways that the kids that didn’t wait were less able to do. I wonder if that’s really correlated with a sense of, even at that young age, “I actually have some sense of 20 minutes from now.” We’re looking at 20 years from now, but maybe for those kids, 20 minutes from now.

Hal: It’s a great question, and of course this ability to generally be able to step into the shoes of a future self, whether it’s a 20 minute self or a 10 year self, can really help when it comes to delaying gratification. It can really help when it comes to being patient with these long term tasks, where overall, you might be better off if you wait. Of course, in the moment, there’s some tension there.

Peter: I’ve often talked about buffets as being a challenge for me, and this idea that what I want to eat in the moment is different than what I want to have eaten by the end of the meal. I was with a friend of mine who was reminding me of that as he was eating, and he says he keeps asking himself that question when he wants to eat something. “What do I want to have eaten?” As opposed to “What do I want to eat?” That shift of saying, “What do I want to have eaten?” That’s a future self shift.

Hal: I think that’s a really great idea. I think oftentimes what happens is people say going in, “What do I want to eat?” They stop there. Then, they get to the buffet, and they say, “Well, screw what I wanted to eat. How would I want to eat right now?” You’re right. They don’t take that sort of … It’s a little confusing, but it’s almost like a future retrospective perspective, of saying, “What will it be like to, on the next day, look back on what I just did, or even later this afternoon?”

Peter: What have you found has helped people to bridge that gap between their current self and their future self?

Hal: It’s a great question. We’ve found a couple things seem to work. They range from the very low tech to more cutting edge technology, I would say. One that seems to work is to have people sit down and write a letter to their future selves. This, of course, is not a quick and dirty intervention. This is not something that we can just put up a billboard for and have everybody change their behavior, but this would be the type of thing you would want to implement in the right situation, where you have some time, and you have context where someone can actually take the space to write this sort of letter. We’ve also done tasks where we’ve used technology to show people an age-progressed image of themselves, and to me, it’s really like a heuristic to get people to think forward in time, to actually see that distant self in a way that they might not otherwise have considered.

Peter: I’m so curious about that. I read that in the research, and I actually did it. I went on, I bought an app – actually as an aside, the app sits next to my zombie app, which zombifies me. It takes a picture of myself and it makes me a zombie, and guess what?

Hal: If you go old enough into the future, they’re not that different.

Peter: Exactly. They’re not that different. It’s scary. I looked at myself, and I thought, “I’d be a little hard pressed to have this convince me to stick to my diet or save more.” It kind of bummed me out about what I would look like at that age, but it didn’t motivate me, but I think you’ve found a difference.

Hal: I think what you’re getting at, though, really highlights the need for the appreciation for nuance in these sort of interventions. I think when I did that research with my colleagues, we had a controlled setting, the participants were within a narrow age range. 18 to 35 or so. We had taken our time with aging people’s faces. We actually hired a graphic artist to help us. That’s different than some of these apps that you can download, which I think can be good, but if you go too far into the future, or your photo is not quite right, I suspect, and I don’t have the data on this, but I suspect that it could have a backfire effect.

Peter: It just also occurred to me, and I’m a little sad to say this, but I may be of the age where I am now my future self.

Hal: Listen, don’t be embarrassed. When I started this research, I was much younger, and each year that goes by, I look at these pictures that I created of my future self 10 years ago, and I think, “Oh my god. I look more and more like that than I do my past self.”

Peter: “This may not be a problem for me anymore, because I’m already just living my future self.”

Hal: I know we’re joking, but I think that to some extent, some of these interventions are more useful for a younger audience, who really doesn’t spend the time thinking about their future selves, and could really benefit from doing so. I’m guessing, you know, someone who’s in their 40s, the idea of retirement isn’t so foreign. Yeah, it could be 20 years down the line, but at some point, you have to start thinking about it. If you’re 22, and you just graduated, I think some of the thinking is, “Why should I put any money away now? I’d rather use this for going to bars on the weekend.” That’s when it really could matter to say, “There will be a future self of yours down the line.”

Peter: I think it’s actually interesting, because I bet cultural messages make a huge difference. I mean, I grew up not only with a sense of kind of the importance of saving, and the importance of putting away, and the importance of legacy as a kid, but also, I’m Jewish, and my mother was in the Holocaust in France, and there was this sense of purpose. Why we exist. It’s not for us as much. I mean, it’s for us, also, but it’s also for what we can create in future generations. I imagine the cultural messages that we hear over and over again impacts how we see our future selves.

Hal: I think you’re absolutely right about that. The idea of sort of group level, future-oriented thinking is a really interesting question to me. Something I haven’t really explored much, but considering that there’s some cultures who are closer knit and really see not just the future, like what you’re saying, but also to take the example of more secular Jewish culture, the idea of a long past that we can see playing into the present and projecting forward into the future. I think that becomes a really interesting question, when I’m not just saving for me, but also for future generations.

Peter: It’s fascinating. I was just thinking as you were saying this, the link between ancestors and progeny, right? The sense of, “If I can really see clearly into my past, that probably reinforces the way that I think clearly into my future.”

Hal: That’s exactly right. In fact, I don’t want to be too self-promotional, but I actually have a paper about this idea of mirroring the past into the future for environmental decision making, and we don’t need to get into it, but the idea was actually taken from an astrophysicist who said, basically, “If we want to try to figure out how long a star is going to live for, we should figure out how long it’s already been in existence and just mirror that into the future.” The idea is that we, as a general rule, as a heuristic, we see how long something’s been around, and we think, “Let’s just project that forward.” That can really matter when it comes to making these long-term decisions that will have effects and consequences long after our lifetimes.

Peter: It feels really important for leaders, because so often we come in wanting to change things. What it suggests is leverage to change things in the future can be built on the foundation of what existed in the past. So often, we try to distance ourselves from the past in order to create a new future, but what you’re saying is that actually it’s the opposite. It’s by having a deep respect for the past that we can actually envision a future that can move us forward.

Hal: I think that’s exactly right. From an organizational standpoint, that doesn’t mean, “Oh, you have to just build in a sort of marginal way on the past, because we need to respect it.” I think you can have major changes to organizational culture, or thinking, or leadership while still at the same time preserving some sort of values or core identity that your group has built up over time. I think that’s exactly what you’re saying.

Peter: Every spiritual tradition, in one way or another says, “We are all one.” Ultimately, we’re all connected, and we’re all one. I found it fascinating that I might actually see my future self in the same way that I see a stranger. I wonder whether flipped on its head, it actually is the same message, and I wonder whether the solution isn’t to create a deeper connection to our future selves, as much as it is to create a deeper connection to the people around us, and to really see them and us as not that different, so that rather than close the gap between myself and myself, if I close the gap between myself and the other, then I will care for my future self. There was something really beautiful about this idea, and I wanted to explore it with you.

Hal: I love it, and I think that this is, in fact, something that my closest collaborators and I have been talking in these themes for a while now, and we’ve never actually gotten down to do it, but the idea that, essentially, what a lot of this boils down to is our ability to step into other minds. We’ve been talking about this in terms of stepping into the mind of my future self, but it’s really, theoretically, should operate on the same principles as stepping into the minds of other people, and taking their perspective. Not just taking their perspective, but empathizing with them, and seeing what their worldview is like. What their situations are like, and how their contexts can affect their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In the same way, we want to do something similar with our future selves, but I agree with you that there can be other mechanisms for solving these problems, and also just flip that on its head, other problems can be solved at the same time.

If we’re only taking care of our future selves, we may be neglecting others. In fact, one of my collaborators, Dan Bartells, has a fascinating paper where he finds that people who are better connected to their future selves actually … This is in a laboratory context, donate less to other people, because they’re choosing to donate it to their future selves, whereas those who see no real connection to their future selves, if given the option to give money to others right now, or money to their future selves, they choose to give money to others. This is sort of the dark side of this, like you said, we could close the gap between our self and ourselves, or we could try to close the gap between ourselves and others. Obviously, the better thing to do, like you said, would be to create more of a oneness, or togetherness, or however you want to term it, and have connection to others and to ourselves in the future as well.

Peter: I can see how it would operate both ways, and it would be interesting to think about how to do it in a way that creates not only personal good, but social good. Dan Bartell’s research is very interesting, because it would suggest that the closer we see ourselves in the future, the less we feel connected to the other people.

Hal: I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the case, but it all depends on whether we see this as a zero sum game, or a pie that we can expand. It seems to me that we could actually really expand the pie for our future selves if we figure out how to make these connections to others stronger right now, for a variety of reasons.

Peter: Your research on creating more of a connection between yourself and your future self has increased your own savings and decreased your giving. Have you researched the impact of connecting to other people – kind of the reverse side – to see whether that ends up helping you to support yourself also.

Hal: It’s a great question. We haven’t done it, but it would seem like if some of the principles that this operates on is being able to take other people’s perspectives, and our future self is another, then these interventions should help out for that intrapersonal connection as well.

Peter: You asked 1,000 people who is their worst enemy. Half of them said …?

Hal: Themselves.

Peter: Themselves. This is that idea, right? I’m my worst enemy. I go, I look at that buffet, or I spend my money on beer, and I don’t put it in my IRA, or the 401K.

Hal: I should note that I gave people, I said … It was a forced choice question, where one of the options was themselves. I might not have found such a high percentage if I left it open ended, but I do think it probably, whatever the exact number is, I think it reflects a sophisticated realization on behalf of many people, which is that they know that they are often the cause of their own misery, right? This is why we have so many of these sort of business ideas, and products, and contracts that allow us to really protect ourselves from ourselves.

Peter: Right. That’s the environment piece.

Hal: Exactly. It’s the environment piece. Yes.

Peter: There’s something important here about the heat of the moment. Dan Ariely has done fascinating research about choices I would make when I consider a situation versus choices I make in the heat of the moment. It turns out that we do things in the heat of the moment that are the opposite of what we said we would do. Have you looked at that at all?

Hal: We haven’t, and I think I would love to, because I think that what we’ve primarily focused on are these one shot decisions. Signing up for your 401K. That’s the type of choice you make once, or however many times you start a new job. It’s not the type of thing that confronts us in a daily setting, whereas in the dieting or healthy living domain, we are regularly faced with these temptations, right? I question whether or not pulling out a picture of my future self would really be effective in those settings, because after a while, we would habituate to it just like we would anything else. That, maybe, is a problem for a smart choice architect to solve. Someone to think about, “Well, how do I get this to be presented in a way that’s maybe novel and emotionally evocative every time?” That’s something I haven’t solved.

Peter: I remember that my mother once bought this very funny, plastic pink pig. You put it in the refrigerator, and it’s activated by light, so when you open the refrigerator, the light goes on, and it oinks. You look, and you go, “Huh. I don’t really know that I want to go for what I was going for.” You did habituate. You kind of laughed it off and habituated to it after a while, so that might be what happened.

Hal: After a little while, now you have a new association where that noise signals it’s time to eat.

Peter: Right. Exactly. Time to go to the trough. You are a psychologist, and you’re also an assistant professor of marketing?

Hal: Right. Right.

Peter: You work at a business school, and I’m curious about how the research gets used. I spend most of my time around human behavior and leadership, and in what way are you teaching this in the context of marketing?

Hal: That’s a great question. I would say that the majority of my research focuses on consumer level behavior, rather than firm level behavior. What I try to look at is ways that we can help consumers do the things that they say that they want to do. Now, there are business opportunities in that, so whenever I do consulting, I love the opportunities that allow for benefits to be accrued to firms and consumers at the same time. Companies that can help people start saving more. That benefits the company, but it benefits people, too. Companies that are trying to help people eat healthier, et cetera. When we think about how this can be applied, of course, probably like any social-psychological insight, there are insights …

Peter: There’s a dark side.

Hal: Yeah, there’s the dark side, and there’s the …

Peter: There’s the bright side.

Hal: I have seen this research being used by financial firms that try to get people to save more. I’ve seen it being used by some public service announcements to get people to be healthier when it comes to their alcohol consumption. On the other hand, I used to live in New York, and right before I left New York, the New York Lotto implemented a campaign that said, “Do your future self a favor and buy a lottery ticket.” I can go on record saying, “That’s not what we intended.”

Peter: Part of what I’m thinking this research does, by having more people understand it, is it helps protect you from that. Meaning you can look at that and go, “Ah, now I see what they’re doing. They’re kind of using this future self thing in a way that’s probably not in my best interest. I’m not going to fall for it, but in this case over here, it is in my best interests, and I will fall for it on purpose.”

Hal: That’s right. We don’t know how effective these interventions are when people are sort of aware of what’s going on, versus sort of passive participants in whatever the context is. I think you’re right. Just like any other research, people can be consumers of the research findings, and try to recognize when these findings are being implemented in the real world, and see how they respond to it.

Peter: Hal, next steps for your research? What are you looking at now?

Hal: Right now, we’re doing a variety of projects, some of which are much more basic science oriented, trying to understand where the origin of this tendency to think about the future self as another person comes from. What we’re thinking is that it might stem from our tendency with memories to jump backwards in time, rather than to sort of replay things on a timeline. I think we do the same thing with our futures. We jump forward in time, rather than see how everything is connected between here and 10 years from now. It’s sort of like driving across country. If we drive from New York to Pittsburgh, we see how the neighborhoods change, and the landscape changes and everything, but if we fly there, we don’t see any of those connections. What we’re trying to figure out is, why is it that we don’t feel that sense of connection to our future selves? I think it stems from how we just visualize it in time.

We’ve also been looking at other domains, so we’re doing a big study now on weight loss, and seeing if we can help people lose weight by projecting images of their bodies changing over time. That’s been going on for a while now. Then, we’ve been looking at this in other contexts as well. Looking at older people, who have to make decisions about end of life choices, and things like annuities, and wills, and whatnot, and seeing what level of connection to future selves or future generations might be helpful for them.

Peter: I think there’s an advantage to not seeing that straight line from you to your future self, which is this tremendous capacity for change, and to recognize that there’s a certain reality that says, “In 10 years, I will actually be a different person. 10 years ago, I was actually a different person.” Again, in the spiritual world, people say that every single cell has changed in you over some period of time, I don’t know what that period of time is, but in some ways, there’s this deep connection to who we have been, and then in other ways, we have this capacity to be very different than we were in the past.

Hal: It’s a great point, and one of the things that I’m most fascinated by is how people manage to both change for the better, but at the same time, see themselves as some aspect of their core identity being preserved. There’s a student at University of Chicago, Sarah Maluki, who’s done some really interesting research showing that people incorporate positive change into an idea of similarity. “I can be the same over time, as long as I’m getting better.”

Peter: Hal Hershfield is the assistant professor of marketing at UCLA Anderson School of Management. You can listen to his TEDx Talk if you look at Hal Hershfield, TEDx East. Someone to continue to watch. I hope we’re in many conversations in the future. Thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Hal: Thanks so much, Peter. I appreciate it.

If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive, as well as access to my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit PeterBregman.com. Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and to Brian Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening, and stay tuned for the next great conversation.

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  • Ninez Jerbi September 28, 2016 Reply

    Great topic, thanks!

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