Oh, It's a pickle!

What can the art of pickling show us about making decisions and plans for the long term?

Oh, It's a pickle!

Imagine you're in an Indian kitchen filled with the rich aroma of spices, surrounded by vibrant vegetables awaiting a magical transformation. This is where pickling happens, a cherished tradition that preserves food for later enjoyment.

Pickling isn't just about food – it's a lesson in understanding time.  A long time ago, people didn't have refrigerators, so they had to find ways to keep their food from going bad. Pickling was one way they did that. This well-timed process requires patience, carefully preparing ingredients, and knowing flavours will evolve and become even better over time. But this long-term thinking often stays in the kitchen.

In other parts of life, we struggle to look beyond the present. How far ahead can you think when you're deciding things today? Probably not very far. Think about the last time you watched a whole season of a TV show in one sitting or ate a lot of junk food without thinking about how it could affect your health in the long run.

One fascinating phenomenon that explains this is called "hyperbolic discounting," which has been extensively studied by economists. This concept suggests that we have a tendency to prioritise immediate gratification over delayed rewards. Psychologist Richard Herrnstein was the first one to identify and delve into this concept in 1961. He observed that individuals not only consider the amount and rate of rewards but also factor in their immediacy when making decisions. In simpler terms, It involves a preference for smaller, immediate rewards over larger, delayed rewards when both options are available at the same time. For example, when asked to choose between receiving $5 million now or $2,50,000 per year, many people would choose the immediate reward, even though they would receive a greater amount over time with the annual option.

Our inclination towards short-sightedness impacts our economic choices, where we prioritize short-term convenience over the long-term health of our planet, to our personal finances, where we might choose to spend money on immediate wants rather than saving for our future needs. Instead of rationally considering long-term needs, we prioritize present desires, leading to underestimation of future investments and undervaluing future rewards.

Various studies have explored the influence of cultural, socioeconomic, and age-related factors on our decisions regarding present versus future rewards. Kim et al. (2012) found that Americans exhibited higher present bias and elevated discount rates compared to Koreans, suggesting cultural differences. Ishii et.al.,(2017) revealed that Japanese individuals were less inclined to discount future rewards compared to Americans, indicating potential cultural implications in financial decision-making. Income also plays a role in temporal discounting among older adults, with lower-income individuals demonstrating a higher degree of temporal discounting. Age can also influence temporal discounting behaviour, with middle-aged participants being more future-oriented.

These collective findings highlight the complex interplay between cultural, socioeconomic, and age-related factors in shaping individuals' decisions about valuing present versus future rewards.

But why are we bad at long-term thinking and discounting future rewards?

We seek assurance in the present:

One reason is that when making decisions, we often prefer options that are certain. We are risk-averse and feel more secure when rewards are already guaranteed. Additionally, we struggle with long-term planning and have difficulty understanding long-term consequences. This is called "temporal myopia," which means we can't effectively see and evaluate the future, leading to uncertainty.

Back to the future:

To tackle this, researchers are looking at "Mental Time Travel(MTT)," a fascinating concept rooted in psychology and cognitive science, mental time travel refers to our ability to mentally navigate through time. It empowers us by allowing recollection of past experiences as well as envisioning and strategizing for upcoming events. The term "mental time travel" was coined by Endel Tulving, a renowned Canadian psychologist, in the 1980s. Tulving's pioneering work in memory, especially episodic memory, led him to propose that this type of memory is a form of mental time travel.

A study “Mental Time Travel and Retirement Savings”, shed light on our perception of financial investments over time. They use mental time travel to envision the evolution of a given amount, such as $1, using various cognitive perspectives over the years. This approach reveals how different modes of thinking, like exponential, hyperbolic, or linear, influence our evaluation of long-term investment options.

Exponential thinking assumes a steady increase in value due to compounding, while hyperbolic thinking expects faster growth in the short term, slowing down in the long term. Linear thinking, on the other hand, underestimates growth by ignoring compounding effects. Similarly, when discounting the future value of $1 back to the present, exponential, hyperbolic, and linear methods have varying effects. Hyperbolic discounting leads to heavy discounting of near-future rewards compared to distant-future rewards.

When the way we think about projection and discounting perfectly matches, it's called "symmetric valuation." But in reality, our thinking is often "asymmetric," meaning our projection and discounting don't match perfectly. This can lead to differences between what we expect and what actually happens in the future.

While the concept of mental time travel holds intriguing possibilities for future orientation decision-making, its practical implications and effectiveness as a tool remain uncertain.

An alternative approach is to engage in priming exercises that help align your thinking with long-term goals. In a study conducted with participants exposed to words such as "future" and "long-term," better self-control and future-focused thinking were observed. Therefore, utilizing such priming techniques has the potential to reduce cognitive biases and enhance decision-making in the future.

While there needs to be further studies and research conducted to fully understand the intricacies of time perception and its impact on decision-making, it is clear that our internal representation of longer time intervals and cognitive biases significantly influence our decision-making processes. Mental time travel and priming techniques offer strategies to navigate these influences and make more informed choices for our future selves.

This weekend, as you consider the art of pickling, let us reflect on things you're doing now getting you closer to where you want to be. If not, try out future priming to help steer your focus towards those long-term goals. Just like pickles improve as they're given time, our decisions can also benefit from careful and timely thinking.

Have a great weekend!