To Be and When to Be: How Far Into the Future Do People Project Their Self-Images?

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Abstract

Little research has been conducted as to how far older and younger adults extend their self-images into the future, that is, their imagined future selves, such as imagined future family roles, future hobbies, or future traits. According to one line of research, we should expect aging to be associated with changes in future time perspective, such that older adults perceive their futures as more limited and less central compared with younger adults. According to another view, the distance with which individuals project themselves into the future may not simply be a function of age-related changes in perspectives, but may be formed by age-independent cognitive and motivational constraints. To address these questions, this study examined the temporal distribution of future self-images generated by a large representative sample of Danish adults from 18 to 70 years of age (998 participants), using the “I will be” task (Rathbone, Conway, & Moulin, 2011). The results showed that participants concurred on a surprisingly short future horizon, dating their future self-images within the first 5 to 10 years from their present, irrespective of any demographic factor. The findings also revealed that all age groups generated considerably more positive future images and that these were closer to their present whereas negative ones were pushed further into their future. The results suggest motivational and cognitive constraints producing uniformly short future horizons of the self-projections across all age groups.

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