Future Lock-in: Or, I’ll Agree to Do the Right Thing...Next Week
Executive Summary — Most of us believe that we should make certain choices—save more money or reduce gas consumption, for example—but we do not want to carry out these choices. In psychology this tension has been referred to as a "want/should" conflict. Rogers and Bazerman show through four experiments that people are more likely to choose what they believe they should choose when the choice will be implemented in the future rather than in the present, a tendency they call "future lock-in." They also discuss directions for future research and applications for public policy, an arena in which citizens are often asked to consider binding policies that trade short-term interests for long-term benefits. Key concepts include:
- Tension occurs between an individual's immediate self-interest and the interests of all others, including his or her own "future self." Individuals tend to think that their future selves will behave more virtuously than their present selves.
- Four studies demonstrated the future lock-in effect, which describes a person's increased willingness to choose and support a binding "should-choice" when it is to be implemented in the future rather than in the present.
- Policymakers could leverage the benefits of future lock-in by advocating for reforms that would be decided upon in the present, but go into effect in the future. Future lock-in would encourage citizens to more heavily weight a policy's abstract merits rather than its concrete costs.
When making decisions a person often thinks that she should make certain choices (e.g., increasing savings, reduce gas consumption) but does not want to make them. This intrasubjective tension between "multiple selves" has been referred to as a "want/should" conflict. In four experiments we show that people are more likely to choose what they believe they should choose when the choice will be implemented in the future rather than implemented immediately, a tendency we refer to as "future lock-in." We demonstrate future lock-in for decisions about donation (Study 1), organizations (Study 2), public policy (Studies 3, 4), and self-improvement (Study 3). Consistent with Temporal Construal Theory, we find that future-implemented choices are construed at a higher level than immediately-implemented choices, and that this construal difference mediates the increased support for the should-choice resulting from future implementation. We discuss future lock-in in light of hyperbolic discounting, multiple selves, and wise policy design.