If things are slow at the office, just remind employees they are going to die

Most people don’t think about the reality of getting old.
Most people don’t think about the reality of getting old.
Image: AP Photo / David Goldman
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There’s a new future to explore but it’s not the stuff of spaceships and flying cars. A recent spate of scientific research draws upon behavioral biases and social psychology prompting the turn inwards: our future self.

Scientists have long studied the human ability to delay instantaneous rewards, a trait known as “present bias,” and plan ahead, from bank accounts to living wills. Bloomberg reported this week on a recent study from Harvard neuroscientists finding that in some people, the same part of the brain that is activated when they think about other people is also engaged when thinking about their future selves. Meanwhile, those “exposed to images of their future selves [actual photos of what they would look like in a few decades] significantly increased (and in some cases more than doubled) the amount of money that they allocated to their retirement account.” Digital future selves could revolutionize personal finance.

Days earlier, the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof revisited the old nature versus nurture argument. A McGill neurologist who experimented on rats found that rats who were groomed and licked by their mothers performed better in mazes. Kristof argues that applying this same principle to people can be predictive of later-in-life success.

This may illuminate one way that poverty replicates itself from generation to generation. Children in poor households grow up under constant stress, disproportionately raised by young, single mothers also under tremendous stress, and the result may be brain architecture that makes it harder for the children to thrive at school or succeed in the work force.

As much as humans try to avoid or escape the ultimate future—death—terror management theory suggests that it’s at the core of what drives what we do in life. A growing body of social psychology, reported in New Scientist this week, argues that rather than fearing death we should actually be thankful for it.

For example, one of the most powerful forces shaping human culture is the desire to leave a legacy. Some of the greatest achievements of civilisation can be attributed to this urge, from the pyramids of Egypt to Paradise Lost. Now terror management theorists have demonstrated that, at least among undergraduates in the US, thoughts of death continue to stoke our drive to be remembered.

Actively thinking about death, concrete evidence of our future selves, encourages people to live more healthily and be more productive in order to leave behind a worthwhile legacy. Things slow at the office? Remind your employees that they’re going to die.

While thinking about the future can be elusive, hindsight is too often reductive. Something called “peak-end” bias greatly influences the way we evaluate experiences. If we go on vacation, rather than our brain’s taking an average of our enjoyment over the entire trip, we will remember the most intense moments and those at the end. So in that next meeting, rather than laboring over every point, hit a few emotional high notes and end strong.