Jobs and the Future of Work

Future thinking: how to prepare our minds for intergenerational decision-making

An empty chair in an empty room. future thinking

What would you say to your future self if you were future thinking? Image: Pexels/Paula Schmidt

Ewa Lombard
Assistant Professor in Sustainable Decision Making, Montpellier Business School
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  • Studies suggest that belief in a positive future of society can influence how people behave and make decisions in the present.
  • When people believe in a positive collective future, it alters their behaviour towards making that modelled future not just a remote idea but a likely prediction.
  • While it may be hard to imagine a better future, role-playing and simulation to engender future thinking can create lasting impressions and augment our ability to imagine a positive collective future.

Imagine an empty chair representing you in the year 2050. As you sit facing this chair, visualize your future self filled with courage and resilience in the face of climate challenges. Speak to this future self openly, expressing your fears and concerns; allow them to respond with wisdom and reassurance, offering you guidance on how to navigate uncertainties. Realize that within you lies the capacity to overcome fear and embrace hope for a sustainable future.

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This short psychodrama script is based on a method called “the empty chair”, which is used for dealing with difficult emotions from the past, as well as to help prepare for conversations and situations in the future. It could also be a helpful technique for alleviating fear of the future due to climate change in a future-thinking group workshop.

Scenario thinking for strategic foresight

Scenario thinking is a pivotal tool within the field of strategic foresight. It’s employed to anticipate plausible futures on a time horizon beyond 10 years. Scenarios are an aid for decision-making especially in contexts characterized by deep uncertainty.

Going through the process of scenario development prepares decision-makers and their organizations to adeptly navigate the potential risks and opportunities these futures may harbour. For the participants of such a workshop, the exercise also provides a prediction model based on which they can adjust their current beliefs about the future.

How leaders characterize the future
How leaders characterize the future Image: World Economic Forum

Prediction-making and testing is the basis of how the human brain perceives and learns about the world and this act of pre-living a hypothetical experience enables us to pre-train a response should we once find ourselves in a similar situation. In other words, by creating memories of the future, we enrich the range of what is meaningful, possible and acceptable to our brain, along with pre-living the feelings, actions and decisions that a novel reality may elicit.

Why is future thinking important now?

Many futurists warn about biases, such as availability bias and confirmation bias, when imagining alternative futures. But other than filtering out what’s subjectively implausible, our minds may be unwilling to face the fears and worries stirred up by imagining or merely talking about distant futures.

Even though we are approaching the UN Summit for the Future, many people may not yet be at ease with the skill of futures literacy, which, as promoted by UNESCO, is the capability to use the future effectively. It may be hard for people to imagine distant time horizons, such as 2050, because a typical time horizon for human cognition is 10 years into the future. Particularly if meeting survival needs is the priority, as is the case in developing countries and communities.

Neuroscientifically, future thinking (also known as prospection) is subserved by several mental processes that enable individuals to simulate, imagine, plan and predict the likelihood of their future. In fact, memory and future imagination are intricately linked through shared neurocognitive mechanisms, and both are influenced by current mental state (mood and emotions), past experiences and a disposition known as future time perspective.

Depression, burnout and eco-anxiety cause negative future bias

The psychological terrain of individuals heavily influences their ability to envision a positive future. Research underscores a significant correlation between a negative orientation towards one's past – manifested as dominant negative memories, rumination and regret – and a pessimistic outlook on the future.

A negative future orientation, conceptualized as a sense of future hopelessness, negative expectations or lack of thinking about the future, impedes one's capacity to imagine and work toward a positive future. Similarly, depression, burnout, and apathy reduce the ability to imagine the future. Furthermore, the rise of eco-anxiety, fuelled by concerns about environmental degradation, and solastalgia (a form of existential distress caused by environmental change), can hinder the belief in one's ability to act positively for the future.

Engaging in future thinking may lead to the emergence of such fears and lock our imaginations in visions of collective dystopia or, worse, no imaginable visions of the future at all.

How leaders view the next 10 years in terms of risks
How leaders view the next 10 years in terms of risks. Image: World Economic Forum

Belief in a positive collective future is a powerful motivator

Yet, studies suggest that belief in a positive future of society can influence how people behave and make decisions in the present. Data from more than 6,000 participants in 24 countries suggests that belief in economic development and scientific progress, as well as in the benefits of building a more caring and moral community in the future, predicts individual engagement in public, private and financial pro-environmental action.

When people believe in a positive collective future, it alters their behaviour towards making that modelled future not just a remote idea but a likely prediction. Indeed, episodic future thoughts can ultimately influence our decisions and actions in favor of goal pursuit.

The links between future thinking and decision-making are multiple, from reducing psychological and temporal distance to the future to increasing estimated probability of a future outcome. Episodic future thinking and collective future thinking may promote the pursuit of a common goal by shaping the feeling that imagined events will (or will not) happen in the future – referred to in studies as belief in future occurrence.

Role-playing and simulation for future thinking

Although research in collective future thinking is in its infancy, it is marked by intense interest from both social psychologists and futurists. One of the first notable studies suggests that hope for peace is lower in younger than in older generations in populations marked by decades of conflict. Interestingly, the degree of participants’ hope for peace increased after a three-minute virtual ageing experience where they saw their aged hands and were guided by the experimenter to imagine they were 80 years old and reminisce on their past.

This example emphasizes that while it may be hard to imagine a future better than today (given current predictions about climate change), certain interventions based on role-playing and simulation can create lasting impressions and augment our ability to imagine a positive collective future.

Workshop participants could, for example, imagine stepping into the shoes of their future selves or explaining their choice today to their grown-up (grand)child 25 years from now. Such immersive experiences can create a deep connection with the future, fostering empathy and a sense of responsibility towards upcoming generations; or help make peace with fear of the future and empower action in the now.

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