Monday, July 12, 2010

choices choices

I meant to post this over the weekend but didn’t get around to it while in amongst my chores and airport transport duties. Both WonderTwins are back in a town; a bit tired but probably somewhat recovered by this morning.

This is a piece that came from my co-worker who enlightens me on game theory and probability on a twice-daily basis. I thought about it long and hard over the weekend and the premise is one of the best ideas about our future selves. I used to simply think of my future self as having gotten the bed ready for bed by about 5pm. In it’s entirely (p.s. his Web site on sport and probability can be found here.):


As I’ve mentioned before, I believe one simple way to model success in life is by how long one’s time horizon is.

The crack addict lives minute to minute.
The obese live meal to meal, snack to snack.
People on a credit card debt treadmill live paycheck to paycheck.
People saving up for a down payment on a car are thinking ahead in terms of months.
The more responsible among us are saving for our retirement and our kids’ education. They are thinking in terms of a lifetime.

Obviously, reality is not quite so simple. People need to have a mix, sometimes thinking about the next meal, sometimes thinking about saving for the future. It’s part of the general ability to delay gratification—the Marshmallow Test.

Getting metaphysical for a moment, you can think of your future-self as a different person from your present self. This sort of makes sense in terms of physics. If x, y, and z are dimensions of the universe, so is t—time. A person in a different t, say 3 months in the future, could be thought of as a separate entity just as if someone else were currently standing 3 feet to your right.

Okay, so we can play the Prisoners’ Dilemma game with other people in the present. I can cooperate and you can reciprocate, and we both benefit in this non-zero-sum world. Consider the same PD game, but instead of two different players in the present, think of it with the two players being yourself and your future self. (Bill and Ted allusion, anyone?) When I forgo the cheesecake after dinner, or when I put $500 in savings instead of buying an iPad, I am ‘cooperating’ with my future self.

The main difference between the conventional PD game and the future-self PD game is that your future-self cannot reciprocate. Time is uni-directional. He cannot respond with altruism of his own toward your present self, nor can he punish your present self for ‘defecting’ against him. As a result, we often tend to treat our (future) selves very poorly, perhaps worse than we would treat other people. In fact, I am procrastinating with my own work right now, but I’d be far more reluctant to pile extra work on someone else’s shoulders. As another example, there are moral taboos toward saddling other people with debt, but there is no moral prohibition on saddling yourself with debt. Or similarly, if I every time ate ice cream it made my daughter put on weight, I’d rarely do it. (And if she could reciprocate I’d be a blimp.)

I think if we think of our future selves as a separate person, someone who is a helpless victim of our present decisions, we might treat ourselves better. Just your random thought for a Friday.

“Listen to this dude Rufus, he knows what he's talking about. “
“Right. Oh, and Ted, give my love to the Princesses.”

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