The destination: your future self

We've been exploring the idea of comparing life to a trail ride.  We're all geared up, the horse is trained and ready, and we're off.  But where's the destination?

In the second article, we looked into the concept of creating a map-like identity.  Our identity sums up:

  • What roles do I play?
  • How do I play those roles?
  • Who do I interact with, in each role?
  • Where am I going?

This post will focus on the last question because that question determines which trail we'll be following.  In life, like on a trail ride, we don't have to ask this question constantly.  It comes up when starting out and when there is a fork in the trail, and at those points, we need to be prepared to decide which way to go.

The trails ahead: your possible selves

Since there's no way of knowing how your life will end, the destination isn't fixed.  So actually, what we are concerned with isn't one self, but a number of possible selves.  In The Map: Who Are You? Where Are You Going? we briefly touched on the work of Hazel Rose Markus and Paula Nurius on the subject of possible selves.Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954–969. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.41.9.954  In that article, we also looked at the concept of ideal selves: the roles we want to fill in the future.

Let's look at how our possible selves influence our decision.

According to Markus and Nurius, our possible selves provide us with three things:

  1. An incentive for behavior: We either take action toward a desired future self or away from a feared future self.
  2. A way to understand our current hopes and fears. 
  3. A way to understand the seemingly strange behavior of others.

Our possible selves are distinctly social.  They are "the direct result of previous social comparisons in which the individual's own thoughts, feelings, characteristics, and behaviors have been contrasted to those of salient others."

An incentive for behavior

As an illustration of the first point, consider a person who has been dieting and is tempted by a third slice of pizza.  If the person has a relatively easy time losing weight, it might be difficult to resist the temptation.  On the other hand, if the person has a real struggle with his weight, he may envision himself as obese or out of control and this fear may motivate a greater degree of willpower.

A way to understand hopes and fears

Imagine another person who has made an appointment to meet a friend for lunch, but the friend doesn't show up.  What will her reaction be?  She may shrug off the oversight, but if one of her possible selves is a lonely person, she'll probably take it much harder.

When others behave strangely

It's difficult to understand others, but it's especially difficult when someone acts differently than we expect.  This could be because the person is haunted by a possible self that we've never met.  Markus and Nurius comment that this can lead to behavior that is "inconsistent, crazy, or seriously at odds with what others perceive to be our 'true' selves."

Possible selves also determine the limits we set for ourselves.  Studies have been done where the experimenters rigged the experiment to look as if the participants had higher abilities or more accurate judgments than they really did.  Later they revealed the deception to the participants.  The surprising part was, even though the participants were informed that their scores were inflated, their increased confidence persisted.  This, according to Markus and Nurius, is because possible selves had been activated that were not available before.  In other words, the idea that they could succeed - in an area they previously thought they couldn't - opened up new possibilities for achievement.  The temporary deception proved to be empowering.Dowrick, P.W. (1977). Videotape replay as observational learning from oneself. Unpublished paper, University of Auckland, New Zealand. Cited in Bandura, A. (1981. Self-referent thought: The development of self-efficacy. In J.H. Flavell& L.D. Ross (Eds.), Development of social cognition: Frontiers and possible futures (pp. 1-21). New York: Cambridge Press.

One way to meet your future self: surrogation

The map article discusses the pros and cons of striving for one ideal future self.  While crafting an identity is an important way to find meaning in life,Actually, none of us has just one identity.  We fill multiple roles so we have multiple identities.  But we have to focus on one at a time. we can't be sure that reaching the goal will be what we hoped it would be.  Daniel Gilbert, social psychologist and writer, is an expert on "affective forecasting."  He identifies two common problems with predicting our future experiences:

  1. We are bad at predicting how events will unfold.
  2. We "don't know who we will be" when experiencing a future event.

However, from his experiments, Gilbert has discovered a more effective way of knowing how we'll feel in a future role.  It's called surrogation, meaning "using other people's experience as a guide to your own."  Whether we are considering trying a new food, a new experience, or a new role, the most effective way to know how we'll feel about it is to ask someone who's been there.  This is the concept review sites like Yelp and Amazon are built on. 

However, most people would rather be their own judge of whether they would like something.  This is why most people will decide whether to watch a movie based on the movie trailer rather than looking at reviews.  We generally trust our ability to predict the future based on our own experiences rather than trusting the experiences of others. Gilbert's research shows that our intuition is not the best guide in this kind of situation.

What we've learned

Life is full of mystery.  We don't know where we'll end up, but the possibilities are constantly influencing our behavior and that of others.  Realizing this fact can make life a little less confusing.

Also, while we have no way of knowing exactly who our future self will be, there is a way to determine whether we'll like the view at the end of the trail.  Ask someone who's been there!

The next article will discuss how to deal with the possible selves we hope to avoid becoming.


  • Our subconscious mind constantly forecasts future roles, "possible selves."
    • This can motivate certain behaviors.
    • It can explain why different people behave differently to the same challenges.
    • It can help us understand why others sometimes act in ways we wouldn't expect.
  • We are bad at predicting the future
  • We can increase the odds of knowing if we'll like where we're headed, by asking someone who's already been there.

Article series

  1. A New Way to See Your Self - Take a Trail Ride to a New Identity
  2. The Map: Who Are You? Where Are You Going?
  3. The Horse Trainer: Narrate Your Life Like There's No Yesterday
  4. The Guide: Keep Your Future Out of the Trash Can (and Vice Versa)
  5. The Horse: Your Experiencing Self
  6. The Rider - Your Present Self
  7. Don't Beat the Horse
  8. The Fly on the Horse - Self-Distancing
  9. That Tricky Horse Handler - Your Remembering Self

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