Having worked my entire career in the field of addiction, I agree with Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert: one of the most insidious problems we face as humans is our "fundamental inability to take the perspective of the person to whom the rest of our lives will happen" (Stumbling on Happiness, 162). Instead of having compassion for and being consistently kind to the person we will be later, we saddle him with debt, extra pounds he may never be able to work off, and porn binges he'll regret.
The Brain's Future Simulator is Broken!
The phenomenon is not unique to addiction. Buyer's remorse happens because the today's buying self doesn't know tomorrow's owning self as well as he thinks he does. George Loewenstein calls this the Egocentric Empathy Gap. It's not only other people with whom we have difficulty empathizing. We have a hard time pre-feeling what it's going to be like to be our future selves. And THAT is why we have a hard time treating our future self as though he is someone we care about.
How to Correct the Emotional Vision of Your Near-Sighted Self
Fortunately, there is good research on how to develop more empathy with our future self. As human beings our imaginations are powerful and flexible enough that we can leverage them to learn to better "put ourselves in the shoes" of the person we will be down the road. After we've done that, we come back to our present self less prone to treat that future self like crap. We're more likely to exercise, save for retirement, and floss our teeth. Here is the intervention that has been shown to bring good results in the research done by Elisa Murru and her colleagues at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. (We've revised it to fit the topic of pornography.)
Take Five Minutes to do this: Vividly Imagine the Future Self You Hope to Be
Bring to mind your impression of yourself 5 to 10 years from now. More specifically, think about yourself in the future as a person who has successfully kicked your pornography habit and is thriving in your life. You have a free of the effects of regular pornography consumption. Five to ten years from now, you enjoy the freedom of living according to your values and being less haunted by the struggle with this problem. When you think about yourself five to ten years from now as someone who enjoys your freedom from compulsion, what images come to mind? Please take a few minutes to imagine and think about this image before you read the next paragraph.
Please respond to the following questions in writing: What was the first thing that came to mind when you thought about the image of your future self having successfully moved on from pornography? Write out some of the details of your future self's appearance in the image that came to mind. How are his relationships? How is he doing spiritually? What is his general health? Energy level? Attitude toward life? What are his achievements? Write about anything else that came to mind.
Now congratulate yourself. You've taken a few minutes to take a concrete step that has been shown by research to make a real difference in changing behavior. Studies like this one demonstrate that it's helpful to pre-relish the better life you'll have when you've succeeded in reaching your goals.
Want to make this exercise even more effective? Take a few minutes to comment below about what it was like to go through it.