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Cheating Pays—But Imagine Your Future Self

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For individuals and businesses alike, in the short term, delinquency pays. Cheating on a test earns a good grade; overstating quarterly earnings boosts stock prices. So long as nobody is caught engaging in these ethically questionable (and sometimes illegal) activities, breaking the rules can provide immediate gains.

There is always the possibility, of course, that the cheater may be expelled from his university; the company fined. But according to crime research, cheaters, criminals, reckless thrill-seekers and delinquents of all walks tend to focus solely on short-term gains, rarely considering these long-term consequences.

A new study suggests that some surprisingly simple interventions can help ward off the delinquent in all of us—and even help companies engage in more deliberate, long-range thinking.

Connecting the Selves
Past research has linked a person’s tendency to consider future consequences with his likelihood of engaging in crime. But few studies have tested whether forcing potential delinquents to think about their future selves has any effect on the decisions they make. Finding a way to shake a would-be delinquent out of the living-in-the-moment mentality might prove effective for deterring him from pursuing a bad decision, reasoned a team of researchers including Loran Nordgren, an associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management. 

To test this idea, Nordgren and his colleagues—Jean-Louise van Gelder of the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement and Hal Hershfield of New York University—first determined how to counter a common staple of psychology: people tend to think of their (distant) past and future selves as distinctly different people from who they are today. A person can easily conceptualize himself three months down the road, but imagining who he will be 20 years into the future tends to conjure up images of a remote stranger. Forcing a person to confront and interact with his distant-future self, the team thought, might in turn help him realize how his immediate actions could impact that future self.

“The basis for this is the notion that connection with our understanding of who we might be in the future—what researchers call the concept of future self—can influence the choices we make in the moment, and in the future,” says Nordgren.

“Dear Future Me”
In one experiment, the team used a letter-writing activity to connect participants to their future selves. They recruited participants from Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s online marketplace for work. Half of the participants were given five minutes to write a short letter to their future self: “Think about who you will be 20 years from now and write about the person you are now, which topics are important and dear to you, and how you see your life.” The other participants received the same instructions, but were told to write to their future self projected only three months down the road.

After completing the letter, participants were then presented with various hypothetical scenarios meant to measure their inclination toward delinquency. One scenario, for example, posed, “You need a new computer but you are short on cash. A fellow student tells you about an acquaintance of his who sells laptops that ‘fell off a truck.’ The laptops meet your requirements and are very attractively priced. How likely is it that you would buy one of these potentially stolen laptops?” Similar scenarios brought up dilemmas about theft, insurance fraud and illegal downloading.

As the researchers predicted, those people who wrote to their distant future selves were less likely to say ‘Yes’ to the potentially stolen computer (or make other ethically questionable decisions) than those who had written to themselves three months from now.

Confronting Future You
In a second experiment, the researchers arranged for participants to more explicitly confront their future selves. They used novel technology called “immersive virtual reality” to create three-dimensional avatars of their participants’ faces. Some of the virtual selves were the same age as the undergraduates, while others appeared 20 years older and were meant to represent the students’ 40-year-old selves. When the students entered a virtual room, they approached a mirror and were met with a reflection of either their currently aged virtual self or their older future self.

Following this uncanny confrontation, the students took a short quiz containing eight multiple-choice trivia questions. If the students got at least seven right, they would be allowed to take a 7 euro reward, attached to the questionnaire in an envelope. The answers to the questions were listed on the back of the trivia pamphlet, and the students were instructed to grade themselves after they had completed the quiz. The questions, however, were meant to be tricky and obscure. (One, for example, asked, “Which country borders Tanzania: A) Ethiopia, B) Sudan, C) Zambia, D) Zimbabwe, or E) Angola?”) The researchers assumed that any student who succeeded in getting seven or eight questions right (and who took the money) had, in fact, cheated.

As hypothesized, students who had confronted their older selves cheated less (6 percent) than those who had seen a virtual representation of their current self (23.5 percent): increasing the vividness of a person’s future self makes him less inclined to pursue delinquent actions. In theory, this finding should apply to more-serious criminal actions, too, as researchers have found that many criminals begin their downward spiral with small deviant acts, which eventually lead to more-severe illegal undertakings.

A Less Delinquent Workplace
Researchers are still teasing out the real-world implications of the study. Some are considering the possibility of putting visual renderings of a person’s aged face on his credit card, for example, as a potent reminder to consider his future self and perhaps deter impulse buys. Nordgren, however, thinks that subtler methods based on the results are more likely to come to pass. Indeed, some businesses might already be picking up on these ideas. One bank, for example, recently aired a commercial featuring a man conversing with his future self about money saving.

The study’s implications reach beyond individuals, too. Companies, likewise, can adopt a short- or a long-term outlook about profit and other goals. The degree to which managers feel connected to what they do—and can conceive of the future of their company—likely impacts the decisions they make. “You might imagine an organization where it’s quite customary for leaders to get replaced every five to 10 years,” Nordgren says. “In that case there’s not really a sense that the choices they make matter in terms of their capacity to lead the organization.” Those who are invested on the long term, on the other hand, would likely be more inclined to make ethical and far-reaching decisions. Likewise, employees who feel invested in their company might be more inclined to pursue decisions that will aid in the organization’s prosperity and longevity.

Nordgren points out that the team did not test how long a confrontation with the future self continued to deter delinquency, however. “My sense is that if you’re just making the concerns of the future momentarily salient, which seems likely, then these effects wouldn’t last very long,” he says. A more effective means of encouraging long-term thinking, then, would be promotion of an established and ongoing contemplation of the future. The trigger for that thinking could be a family that spans multiple generations and includes frequent interactions with elderly relatives, or a company that has an actively forward-looking culture and value system. “Environments can vary in terms of how much they get us to contemplate and plan for the future,” Nordgren says. “I think that’s what’s going to really matter for how well-constructed our vision of our future self is.”

Rachel Nuwer of Brooklyn, N.Y., is a freelance science journalist who contributes to publications such as The New York Times, Scientific American and Smithsonian.

(Image via Syda Productions/Shutterstock.com)

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