Understanding your present self depends not only on thoughts, feelings, and activities, but also on experiences and recollections of the past and the vision of yourself into the future. In other words, it all depends on where you’ve been, and where you’re going.
A new study in the journal Psychology and Aging explores how people view themselves over different time spans. The work sheds new light on individual differences in people’s perceptions of themselves and the degrees to which they change over time.
For most people, the sense of connection with their past and future selves declines with increasing distance from the present. In fact, when we’re thinking of ourselves in the distant past or future, it almost feels like we’re thinking about a different person.
Joshua Rutt, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich, and Corinna Loeckenhoff, professor of human development in Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, asked people how much their present selves overlapped with their past and expected future selves and whether the same personality traits described them in past, present, and future.
The study was the first to assess both past and future self-continuity and to include a variety of time intervals ranging from 1 month to 10 years.
The researchers found that past and future self-continuity are symmetrical—that is, people who feel more similar to their past are also more connected to their future. They did the measuring two ways: explicitly (responses to a direct question) and implicitly (completing a task that tapped into their self-continuity).
“We extracted two different measures,” Rutt says. “One of them was the extent to which their future and past personality trait ratings agreed with their present ones, and the other was simply reaction time. How fast did they press the button to answer the question? How long did they have to think about their answer?”
Rutt and Loeckenhoff also found that self-continuity decreases fairly quickly as one thinks a few months into the past or future, but continues to drop off—albeit more gradually—for longer intervals. We see ourselves, they contend, as gradually emerging from the past, then slowly slipping away into the future.
There are considerable differences in self-continuity across people, Rutt and Loeckenhoff say. Perhaps most interestingly, they found that older adults are more likely to view themselves as living in an extended present as opposed to younger adults who tend to live a temporary state suspended between a distant past and an unknown future.
Prior research suggests that feeling disconnected from our past and future selves could lead to poor decision-making regarding things like finances and health care. On the other hand, a greater sense of self-continuity might make one less susceptible to such issues, but at the same time more resistant to making necessary changes in health behavior. For example, older adults’ high levels of self-continuity could lead them to accept treatable conditions as a permanent part of their identity.
Their results put Loeckenhoff in the mind of William James, a pioneer in the study of psychology, who said, “The practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time.”
“From an objective point of view, the present flips into the future in an instant,” Loeckenhoff says. “There is the past and the future, but the present isn’t really there.
“But from a subjective point of view,” she adds, “there is an extended present, and we’re sitting on that like it’s a saddle. In fact, when Josh brought me the first graphs of the data we collected, it really did look like a saddle-back.”
The National Institute on Aging supported this work, which is based on Rutt’s doctoral dissertation.