How far will you go to protect your ‘future self?’

Are you an altruist or an egoist?

Beyond just its philosophical importance, the answer to this question could predict your future health and longevity.

I’m not talking about studies indicating that doing good things for others brings you greater health, longevity, and well-being. Nor am I talking about how egotistically focusing on your abs or running your “personal best” marathon can improve your health.

I’m talking about how we treat ourselves – our future selves.

Let’s say you could magically place yourself within the conscious experience of your future self at age 70. Once there, you look down at your body, the fleshy love-handles and creaky joints and think, “Why didn’t I take better care of myself when I was younger?”

Maybe you plop down in your recliner to read the newspaper and none of the headlines seem to make sense. You think, “Why didn’t I focus more on world events instead of watching so much prime time TV over the past 20 years?”

The point is: Why weren’t you nicer to yourself? Your 70-year-old self is likely to lament that the younger “you” wasn’t more conscientious of your well-being. How selfish!

But your younger self had other priorities. Decades of psychological research confirm that immediate self-gratification provides a more powerful incentive than rational planning, despite that the latter provides greater long-term benefits. However, delayed gratification is harder: it requires envisioning a future state, projecting yourself into it, and considering the consequences of your present actions on your future well-being.

That’s a lot of work to do for someone – your future self – who seems so distant, almost not even you.

Indeed, some of the most provocative research on the “self” suggests that your future self will not actually be you at all. Experimental philosophers and neurologists are now challenging the very existence of an identity that endures across the lifespan. The pig-tailed “you” of your childhood is no more the “you” of today than it is the “you” of your elder years.

Not only are we not the same person from decade to decade, but not a single shred of evidence in the entire corpus of scientific discovery supports the existence of a distinct, continuous “self” independent from situational, neurobiological, chemical, and environmental influences.

The reflective “me” that William James distinguished from the “I” who experiences each passing moment may not exist. Some neuroscientists believe that the self is an illusion, even a “controlled hallucination” stemming from our minds’ persistent (and adaptive) effort to create a coherent narrative from our memories and social interactions.

The stability of our projects and of others’ expectations gives the impression of an integrated and unified “self,” even while psychological studies show we have inconsistent personality traits and behaviors over time that are highly contingent on influences beyond our conscious awareness or control.

If our future self is literally a different person than the present “you,” one really must be an altruist in order to pursue health behaviors that have long-term rather than short-term benefits. You’d be doing something for someone you don’t even know, someone who might not even care about or remember you.

Go ahead, try it. Print out a photo of your 70 year-old self with one of those face-aging apps, and hang it on your refrigerator. What are you willing to do for that person? When it comes to your future self, are you an altruist or an egoist? In this case, they might be one and the same.

By Kristin Kostick, Ph.D., research associate in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine

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