You Can’t See Tomorrow

cook_headshotPaul Cook, AIF®, Vice President and Regional Director, Retirement Plan Services

Thomas Hobbes’ famous description of life in times of war as “nasty, brutish and short” could just as easily have been applied to peacetime in the 17th century. Life expectancy in relatively developed England was just 35 years during Hobbes’ lifetime, owing largely to high infant and child mortality rates. In the less developed American colonies, life expectancy was a scant 25 years in Virginia and 40% of New Englanders died before reaching adulthood.

While very few of us would trade the realities of Thomas Hobbes’ day for our own (indoor plumbing is awfully nice), there is no denying that we are psychologically better equipped to prepare for a short life than a long one. The reason this is so is that we have a tendency to focus on the here and now and discount the future that psychologists refer to as “present bias.” To illustrate the power of present bias, consider the following:

Suppose I asked you whether you would like $250 one year (52 weeks) from now or $225 50 weeks from now – which would you choose? Now, what if I offered you a choice between $225 right this second or $250 two weeks from now – would your answer change? If you are like most people, you chose to wait for the larger payout in the first scenario but selected the immediate payoff in the second scenario. The farther we move from the present moment, the more dramatically we begin to discount time. Both scenarios involve a $25 gain for a two-week wait, but we perceive them very differently.

Present bias is rooted, among other things, in our tendency to experience now as a “hot” emotional state and the future in cooler terms. Simply put, right now seems more real than twenty years from now. As a result, many people prioritize meeting the needs of the all-too-real right now but ignore the just as real, but less salient, needs of their future self. If this is done consistently enough, tomorrow becomes today and you find yourself wholly unprepared.

Solution: Stanford Researchers1 have found that seeing a computer simulated aged version of your face makes you more likely to save for retirement. Why? Seeing the “older” version of yourself moves you from a cool to hot emotional state and makes the reality of your retirement more visceral. Psychologists have shown repeatedly that the more salient a variable is, the more likely it is to be acted upon. Start to increase the salience of your own retirement by discussing a few of the following questions with a partner or loved one:

  • Where will I/we live in retirement?
  • How will I spend my days in retirement?
  • What will be the best part of being retired?
  • What problems might arise that I could prepare for now?

For 10 years, Brinker Capital Retirement Plan Services has been working with advisors to offer plan sponsors the solutions to help participants reach their retirement goals.  The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.

Source:

1 Exploring the “Planning Fallacy”: Why People Underestimate Their Task Completion Times, Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1994.

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