Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.
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(Photo: quattro_ftw/Flickr)

(Photo: quattro_ftw/Flickr)

Don’t feel like you have the time to keep a diary or bury a time capsule? You might be missing out, according to psychologists at Harvard Business School: The joy of rediscovering something even a few months old is greater than you might think.

In case you weren’t aware, we’re pretty bad at predicting our future choices and emotions. Economists find over and over that we’ll choose to invest money as long as we make the choice well before we actually see the money: If you get it today, you’ll probably head for the mall. Meanwhile, we’re also fairly bad at predicting how we’ll respond emotionally to future events.

It follows, HBS graduate student Ting Zhang and her colleagues reasoned, that we might well underestimate the value of rediscovery—though that’s not where they got the idea.

The joy of rediscovering something even a few months old is greater than you might think.

“The project actually started from a realization I had as I was going through old family photos. Most of the photos we had were of extraordinary occasions, such as vacations, birthdays, and holidays,” Zhang writes in an email. “On the rare occasion we came across those photos, we had a lot of fun rediscovering the little things that reminded us of what life was like.” That led Zhang and her collaborators to wonder whether people might overlook the value of ordinary moments, she writes.

To find out, they asked 135 undergrads to make time capsules including recent photos, Facebook statuses, and—how’s this for mundane?—final exam questions. The students next rated how curious they’d be to see those glimpses of their recent past in a few months’ time, how interesting they’d find them, how surprising, and so on, using a seven-point scale. Generally, participants didn’t think they’d be particularly curious, interested, or surprised. Indeed, the 106 participants that followed up three months later weren’t very curious, interested, or surprised—but they were about nine percent more curious, eight percent more interested, and 14 percent more surprised than they'd thought they would be.

What’s more, people might come to regret those choices. Using Amazon Mechanical Turk, the team asked 81 people to choose between writing about a recent conversation they’d had or watching a video—though afterward everyone did both tasks—and later say whether they’d rather revisit what they’d written or watch another video. While only 27 percent chose the writing assignment and only 28 percent said they’d want to take a second look at it, a month later 58 percent chose to revisit what they’d written.

Ultimately, encouraging people to write down their experiences can make a real difference in a person’s day, the authors report online in Psychological Science. One participant, they write, took “incredible joy” in re-reading her description of mundane things she’d done with her daughter. “By recording ordinary moments today,” Zhang and her co-authors write, “one can make the present a ‘present’ for the future.”

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