Researchers across various disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, marketing, and economics have long argued that the degree to which individuals feel connected to their future selves can play a role in expectations for how much future utility they may feel in the present. Our work makes three main contributions in this space.
First, we provide some of the first field evidence demonstrating that improving the ability to imagine the future self significantly improves retirement savings behavior. Many interventions have drawn on these ideas but failed to scale up to the natural field environment, calling into question the strength or robustness of these effects. This is not just practically important: Examining whether theoretically-driven interventions are successful in field settings can, in itself, strengthen the theories from which they were developed (7–9). Given that naturalistic field experiments are considered to be the ‘gold standard’ of empirical evidence, our experiment provides the strongest test to date of whether increasing the salience of future selves can impact long-term retirement savings.
Second, our results suggest that all intervention exercises that call to mind future selves may not be created equally. Despite the strong similarities in question prompts for the two treatment interventions, there was a significant increase in savings rates when people were given the future-self intervention alone compared to the past-self plus future-self one. Theoretically, in this past-self plus future-self condition, we used a more identifiable entity (the past self) to help people connect to a more difficult to imagine one (the future self, 1-5, 11). Even though this condition improved behavior relative to a traditional appeal, doing so was still less effective than having people solely elaborate on their future selves.
Why might this be the case? It is possible that elaborating on a more concrete past increased the focus of enjoying the present. Anecdotally, two participants mentioned previously being in bad relationships and then feeling liberated post-breakup. Elaborating on a past self that was worse off may have potentially increased the likelihood of exhibiting present bias, as people may have felt more licensed to indulge in the here and now. However, the field setting of this experiment made it difficult to determine the precise mechanism underlying the differential effectiveness of these two interventions. Future work should further explore why considering a future self alone may be more effective at changing behavior than thinking about a combination of past and future selves.
Finally, our results suggest that future self interventions are effective in novel cultural contexts. Mexico has historically low rates of retirement savings, with less than 1% of active account holders making a voluntary retirement contribution (9). Like in many other parts of the world, having the option of retiring from the workforce is a luxury only afforded or expected by a select few (12–13). Because many older individuals expect to be financially supported by their children or extended family, retirement saving is not typically prioritized (14–15). As a result, it is possible that our interventions could have been met with limited success in this context: encouraging people to elaborate on future selves who might ultimately be helped by younger generations could have just as likely lowered the motivation to save. And yet, our results suggest just the opposite. The effectiveness for future-self interventions are thus not only promising for those in Mexico but may also represent a potentially strong intervention for improving retirement savings behavior more broadly (6, 14–15).
From a policy perspective, it is important to note that the interventions we identified will not solve the lack of retirement savings alone. Increasing the propensity of making regular, small savings contributions nonetheless plays an important role in ensuring a more secure financial future. While other interventions require regulatory changes or more expensive additional forms of communication (e.g., SMS blasts or educational programs), the present one relies on a low-cost, easy-to-implement exercise (8). In particular, the exercise employed here did not require sophisticated technology or require participants to provide a photograph (e.g., 4, 11), making this intervention efficient from a time, labor, and financial standpoint.
An open question, however, concerns the extent to which such future-self interventions lead to lasting impact on behavior, or if they just provide a short-term boost in savings rates. Follow-up work investigating whether individuals continue with their recurring savings plan or not could be essential in understanding how to best motivate and sustain long-term behavioral change.