Mapping Out Past and Future Minds: The Perceived Trajectory of Rationality Versus Emotionality Over Time

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Who do we see when envisioning our “past self” and “future self”? Extant research finds a motivation to perceive improvement over time, such that past selves are seen as worse versions, and future selves as better versions, of current selves. However, the broader components comprising “worse” or “better” beyond domain-specific achievement (e.g., “Last year I failed at dieting, but next year I’ll succeed”) are less well understood. Are there more general qualities ascribed to the person we recall versus imagine being? Six studies suggest so, extending the 2-dimensional mind perception framework to the self: Past selves seem to possess highly emotional but not very rational minds, whereas future selves seem to possess highly rational but not very emotional minds (Studies 1a, 1b, 1c). Consistent with motivated improvement, this asymmetry does not emerge in evaluating others and applies uniquely to self-judgment (Study 2). Thus, our pervasive belief in changing for the “better” specifically means becoming more rational types of people. This observation has asymmetric consequences. Participants who brought to mind future selves sought intellectual enrichment (Study 3) and performed better on a self-control task (Study 4); however, participants who brought to mind past selves sought emotional enrichment and performed better on the same task when allegedly measuring enjoyment. These findings build a bridge between mind perception and intertemporal dynamics, raising novel implications for the present. Thinking about the future may not uniformly “improve” decisions and behaviors; rather, it mostly facilitates rational-related pursuits, whereas thinking about the past may enhance feeling-related experiences.

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