The Mental Landscape of Imagining Life Beyond the Current Life Span: Implications for Construal and Self-Continuity

Brittany M Tausen* (Corresponding Author), Attila Csordas, C Neil Macrae

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Background and Objectives: With rapid advancements in medicine, technology, and nutrition, the future holds the possibility of longer and healthier lives. Despite garnering attention from myriad disciplines, psychological perspectives on life extension are scarce. In three studies, we addressed this gap by exploring key mental characteristics and psychological variables associated with simulating an expanded life span and thus an extremely distant future self.

Research Design and Methods: Three studies investigated the construal (i.e., valence, vividness, and visual perspective) of extremely distant future simulations and the extent to which participants felt connected to their future selves (i.e., self-continuity). Studies 1 and 2 investigated the characteristics of imagery associated with different ages ranging from near the current species maximum (e.g., 120, 150) to more highly hypothetical ages (e.g., 201, 501). Study 3 probed the mental construal of extreme aging among different populations (i.e., life-extension supporters, students, and Mechanical Turk workers). Studies also assessed participants' general feelings about the ethicality and likelihood of techniques that halt or reverse biological aging to help individuals live beyond the current life expectancy.

Results: Participants in all studies reported being able to vividly imagine expanded aging scenarios (increased chronological, without biological, and aging), but these simulations were characterized by a decreased sense of connection to one's future self (i.e., self-continuity) compared to a control condition. Temporal distance did not, however, impact ratings of self-continuity when comparing experimental conditions (i.e., imagining one's self 120 vs 150 or 201 vs 501). Curiously, a sense of self-continuity (when simulating oneself well beyond the current life expectancy) remained intact for individuals who belonged to a community of life-extension supporters. The perceived likelihood and ethicality of extended life-span scenarios also varied significantly across different populations.

Discussion and Implications: The current work is the first to quantify the disconnect between one's current and extremely distant (i.e., beyond the current life expectancy) future self. Given the behavioral implications of feeling disconnected from one's future self (e.g., failing to save for retirement or care for one's own physical health), these findings inform a critical barrier of extended life spans and provide insight into potential remedies (e.g., enhancing the perceived likelihood of living longer). Theoretical implications of hypotheticality and temporal distance, two key dimensions of Construal Level Theory, and their impact on the construal and self-continuity associated with future simulations are also discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberigaa013
Number of pages16
JournalInnovation in aging
Volume4
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jun 2020

Keywords

  • aging
  • future
  • life extension
  • prospection
  • self-continuity
  • temporal distance

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