Looking for your “senior self…”

Do you believe this? You make better decisions about your later-in-life financial situation if you “see” your senior self. Research at Stanford University has documented the “disconnect” we often feel with our older selves. The studies suggest we have a “third person perspective” about aging and “may even view our older selves as strangers.” As a result, we are not making judgments grounded in our long-term best interests.

The study that caught my eye involved spending and saving..The subjects were asked to “allocate $1,000 across four options.” These included 1) buying something nice for someone special, 2) investing in a retirement fund 3) planning a fun event or 4) putting money into a checking account. Each participant in the research study wore goggles and sensors through which they explored a virtual environment that, at some point, led them to a mirror. Half of the subjects saw the image of their current self in the mirror and the other half saw a future-self computerized photograph of what they were likely to look like decades hence including “jowls, bags under the eyes, gray hair.” You get the picture.

Those who saw themselves as “old” put nearly twice as much money into retirement. A sub-set of subjects viewed a digitally-aged photo of someone else–but it was only those participants who actually saw their own digitally-aged photograph that put more money into retirement savings. The decisions these subjects made regarding the $1,000 allocation demonstrated the power inherent in more clearly envisioning our aging selves.

The findings are consistent with the “large body of literature that shows emotional responses are heightened when you give people vivid illustrations.” For example, “donors give more to charities when they hear from a victim” and “pulmonologists smoke less than other doctors because they look at dirty lungs all day.”

Statisticians report 36% of older adults do not save anything at all for retirement. And the percentage of people who believe they will not have enough money put away for retirement is 80%. Pretty sobering; actually it’s not “pretty” at all.

Maybe we need those goggles and sensors in local banks and department stores—maybe that’s what it will take to prompt better judgments when it comes to what we save and what we spend on a day by day basis. Hey, maybe there’s a business here?

Let’s play this out. I envision a drive-through kiosk. You get your photo taken at one end and a digitally-enhanced photo awaits you at the other end. Maybe you tape the enhanced photo of your aging self to the dashboard of your car? Or maybe you tape it inside your checkbook or your bathroom mirror. See what happens.

I kind of like this idea. Do you? If you launch it as business enterprise and it makes money, put half of it in savings.                        Previously published in Mail Tribune Healthy Aging column, 2013

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