To Bind Our Future Selves

Many thinkers have analyzed the relationship between the person we are right now and the person we will become. A young Tom Schelling habitually went to bed without blankets only to wake up hours later as “cold boy” who cursed “warm boy’s” earlier decision but could not stop the next day’s warm boy from making the same decision again. Derek Parfit wondered why we save for retirement, given that the person we are 40 years from now might as well be a stranger to us.

In behavior change, the difference between the current and future self can be observed in the gym every January. Early in the month, resolution makers crowd the place, but within a few weeks their future selves will have undone their earlier resolve.

Probably no group of people struggle with this duality as much as those who are addicted to alcohol, nicotine, and other drugs. I write about their experiences and what new pharmacology can offer them — a chance to bind their future selves — today in STAT/Boston Globe.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

2 thoughts on “To Bind Our Future Selves”

  1. Couldn't make your Schilling link work but this one did: http://web.mit.edu/holton/www/pubs/bookpdf/Ch4.pd… The good professor was deliberately striving to be strong-willed at bedtime by forgoing the extra blanket, only to weaken later. I am not sure that fits neatlyl with a "decision" to forgo a gym visit or IRA deposit, or indulge in ultimately damaging consumption. The opposite would be a closer analogy — someone who bundles up snugly every night, and then regrets it on a wildnerness trip for which he wishes he had conditioned himself.

  2. I think the cold boy-warm boy analogy is exactly right, though, in the larger sense. Jerry Seinfeld had a comedic bit about day guy-night guy. Night guy likes to stay up and watch TV, but day guy has to pay the price when he drags himself to work in the morning. As Seinfeld concluded, the only way for day guy to get revenge on night guy is to get fired, so there's no money to pay the cable bill. That'll fix him. I suspect that Dr. Humphreys is good at helping afternoon Marcus stay in touch with morning Marcus so that afternoon Marcus can make better decisions.

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