Trick Your Brain into Making Great Decisions with Mental Time Travel

Bringing Long-Term Consequences into.the present

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

If we know the results of our actions will hurt us immediately—for example, causing us to lose our job or not make rent—we likely won’t engage in them. However, this doesn’t stop us from indulging in habitual bad behaviors where the effects are less immediate. Dr. Vishton shows us a simple mind trick for closing that gap between present and future.

Choosing between healthy apple or junk food donut
Photo by j.chizhe / Shutterstock

Mental Time Travel

We tend to discount the consequences of our actions if we won’t face these consequences until far in the future. Due to this mindset, we engage in non-optimal reasoning and decision-making such as accruing credit card debt or routinely eating unhealthy food. One way to address this issue is through mental time travel, which brings these effects into the present.

As psychologist Dan Gilbert’s 2011 study demonstrates, our brains are so disconnected from the future that we tend to think of our future selves as a separate individual. This illusion leads to self-destructive behavior that we don’t realize is hurting us in the long run.

Fortunately, you can outsmart yourself through mental time travel. To engage in this process, take a few minutes as you’re pondering what to do next and think about the future—not the distant future, but a future that exists in a few hours, or tomorrow. 

Perhaps you’re thinking about what to do today, or making a choice between running some important errands or napping in front of the television. Imagine that it’s the end of the day—travel forward to that time. Look back on the day you spent. 

The sun is setting, you’ve finished dinner, and it’s time to wind down for the day and get ready for the next one. See that moment through your own eyes. In a few hours, you won’t have to imagine it; you’ll be seeing the world from this perspective. Imagine what that will look like, and what it will feel like.

How will you feel if you spent the day getting the errands out of the way?  How about if you spent the day napping?

By engaging in mental time travel, seeing the world through those imagined future self’s eyes, your decision-making will be improved, and you’ll be more satisfied with whatever you did choose.

Minimizing Analysis Paralysis

As time passes, we make choices and produce behaviors. As we do so, we take advantage of some opportunities and inherently leave others behind. That can be an unpleasant experience. 

It’s quite common for people to ponder roads not taken in their past and where they could have taken them, so we often resist closing doors and instead seek to keep our options open as much as possible. Freedom of choice is something we value greatly, but several recent lines of research suggest that it is possible to have too much freedom of choice.

When people are given too many options for what to do, they often report being less satisfied with the outcome. Some people refer to this as analysis paralysis. When you analyze the choices that they do make, there are some consistent biases that create problems rather than solving them. 

While making choices is a part of life, Dr. Vishton suggests that you can make better decisions and enjoy the fruits of those decisions more if you do two things.

“First, given a range of options, make a firm choice, and make it as soon as is reasonably possible,” Dr. Vishton said. “Second, once you’ve made that choice, commit to it. As much as possible, prevent yourself from thinking further about the road not taken. If you can, create disincentives to prevent yourself from going back and revisiting that choice.”

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.