Have you ever wondered what your future self would think of your current behavior? This would seem to be an important question when making decisions. People who feel connected to their future self make more responsible decisions. For example, people who feel strongly connected to their future self are more likely to value rewards they will experience in the future and are more likely to invest in retirement funds.  Connection to one's future self might promote more patient and future-oriented decision-making by making people care more about themselves. We wondered whether feeling connected to one's future self promotes caring for other people as well.

Future Self-Relatedness and Morality

If people consider how their present behaviors affect their future selves, would they act more ethically? They might be more willing to decline a bribe or care for a fellow human if they consider how their behavior might benefit their future reputation. Seeing a connection between one's present self and future self makes people more sensitive to moral transgressions such as cheating, lying, and stealing. Concern for the future self's well-being might help people resist everyday moral temptations.

Is Future Self-Relatedness Important in Everyday Life?

To test this idea, we conducted a study of the relationship between future self-relatedness, moral principles, and behavior in everyday life. Our 151 adult Italian participants installed a smartphone application that allowed us to collect data about their thoughts and behaviors for seven days. Five times each day, we asked them how related they felt to their future self and how concerned they were about moral principles. We assessed concern with harm and fairness, which focus on individual rights and freedom, as well as loyalty, authority, and purity which highlight the importance of group ties. We also inquired whether they had performed a moral action since the last time they accessed the app.

We examined the link between feeling connected to the future self and moral principles in two ways.  First, we looked at whether people who were higher in future self-relatedness across the seven days were more concerned about moral principles over the seven days.  This provided some insight into how differences between people in future self-relatedness are linked to differences in concern for moral principles. Corroborating previous research, participants who felt more related to their future selves than others were more likely to express greater concerns for moral principles during the seven-day timeframe.

In addition, we examined whether variations within people predicted variations in their concern for moral principles and their likelihood of engaging in moral action.  This provided insight into how fluctuations within the same person in future self-relatedness relate to variations in their focus on moral principles and behavior. We found that when participants had been thinking about their future selves more, they were more sensitive to the suffering of others and ingroup loyalty. When feeling related to the future self, participants were likelier to perform behaviors that protected the harm and fairness values. For example, some participants tried helping elderly people in the supermarket when they felt more related to their future selves.

In sum, we found links between future self-relatedness and moral concerns at both the between-person (trait) and within-person (state) levels. 

Is the Future Self the Guiding Light to Morality?

It seems so! Indeed, think about who you want to be in the future. Perhaps you want to continue being an uplifting partner, a fair parent, a caring mentor, or a loyal citizen. When you think about maintaining these traits in the future, the path to maintaining those traits through your actions today might be clearer. You could act upon the needs of your close others and be more fair in the workplace today. You might even try to show loyalty and respect to those who deserve it. In this way, the person you envision being in the future can guide you in being a moral person today.

Our advice for being an ethical person: when contemplating the morality of your current actions, consider how your future self might feel about them. 

For Further Reading

Simić, A., Sacchi, S., & Perugini, M. (2023). When Future Leads to a Moral Present: Future Self-Relatedness Predicts Moral Judgments and Behavior in Everyday Life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 01461672231211128. https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672231211128

Hershfield, H. E., Cohen, T. R., & Thompson, L. (2012). Short horizons and tempting situations: Lack of continuity to our future selves leads to unethical decision-making and behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 117(2), 298–310. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2011.11.002

Andrej Simić received his doctorate at the University of Milano-Bicocca and works as a research assistant at the University of Tuzla. His research interests include examining how future self- and collective continuity relates to prosocial and moral judgments. He studies how thinking about one's future self and the future of one's group shapes and changes moral values and intergroup relations in the present. In his research, he uses experimental, correlational, and experience sampling methods.

Simona Sacchi is a Full Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Milano-Bicocca. She coordinates the Ph.D. program in Psychology, Linguistics, and Cognitive neuroscience. Her research interests primarily focus on social cognition, specifically, the information search process and social-hypothesis testing. She studies how people form and update impressions of individuals and groups. In the last decade, she investigated how moral-related information forges social perception and behavioral responses at the interpersonal and intergroup levels.

Marco Perugini is a Full Professor of Psychometrics at the Department of Psychology of the University of Milano-Bicocca. Research interests span the fields of personality, social psychology, and experimental psychology, with a keen eye on methodological and psychometric issues. They are part of a broader interest in individual differences, personality traits, attitudes, social cognition, the factors that underlie evaluation and motivation and influence behavior, and the relevant quantitative methods and techniques.