What Can an Older Version of Yourself Teach You? Wear Sunscreen and Save for Retirement.

For most young-ish people, it's easy to be cavalier about things like saving for your eventual retirement. But what if you were forced to confront an older version of yourself in the mirror? Besides freaking out about how wrinkly and sun-spotty you've gotten, would it make you think twice about setting some money aside for future you? A new study says this just might be the way to trick people into saving for their retirements.

Even though we all technically understand that we should be saving for our retirement from the moment we actually start working, it's easier said than done for most of us. For one thing, we don't have a lot of money to spare when we're young and fresh-faced and trying to do exciting things like pay for groceries. But there's also a psychological barrier to setting money aside for future you. Researcher Hal Hershfield, of NYU's Stern School of Business, explains: "When you make a decision now about yourself in the future, that distant self almost feels like a stranger." And why would your brain worry about helping that person when it thinks it doesn't even know them? The answer is it wouldn't. But what if you could force your brain to get to know future you? Would that change the way you made decisions?

To test this, the Hirshfield and several others decided to study what happens when young people come face to face, literally, with their future selves—sort of like sending the Ghost of Christmas future for a quick visit. They put a bunch of college kids into a virtual reality lab where they used goggles to experience what it was like to walk up to a mirror and see a reflection of themselves. For half of them, that reflection was a virtual version of their current selves. But the other half of them saw an image of themselves that had been digitally altered to age them so they looked to be around 68 or 70 years old. Eek! The researchers encouraged the participants to chat with "themselves," a kind of "get to know you" exercise, and talk about similarities they shared.

Afterward, all the college kids were surveyed about finances and retirement. Those who'd come face to face with their future selves said they were willing to set aside twice as much money for long-term savings than the kids who'd seen only their current virtual selves. Co-researcher Laura Carstensen, who runs the Stanford Center on Longevity, said this to NPR about the effects of visualizing your aged self:

When people can really connect to themselves and say, "That person at age 70, that's me, actually," they tend to want to take care of that person more.

It certainly seems that way. It used to be that the idea of meeting your future self and being forced to make changes in your current life because of it was the stuff of awesome movies, but now, apparently, it's poised to just be your basic run-of-the-mill financial planning tool. My, how far we've come. Though it does seem a little crazy that we should require an actual visual cue to think about ourselves as existing in the future, but Carstensen says part of the problem is that we're never urged to conceive of ourselves that way:

Nobody ever says to you when you're in your 20s and 30s, "What are you going to do when you're retired? What are you going to be like? What will your hobbies be?" You know, "Where will you be traveling?"

That is very true, but then again it's much more fun to daydream as a child about growing up to be a pioneer on the prairie or an astronaut or a ballet dancer than it is to sit around as a 30-something fantasizing about how someday all your joints will ache, you'll be constantly confused by all the new-fangled technology you encounter, and you won't have enough money pay for the "eternal youth pill" the government requires you to take. Sigh.

However, if you're curious and daring enough to meet the future you, you can create an aged version of yourself online at places like April Age or Face Transfomer. Though the researchers warn you it won't be exactly the same experience, because these online programs don't create the same kind of sophisticated images they used in this study. Still, it should give you a rough idea of what you'll end up looking like, which will either spur you to start saving for your eventual retirement or send you into an emotional tailspin as your delusions of being forever young and beautiful dissolve and you're forced to come to grips with your own mortality. Good luck!

Your (Virtual) Future Self Wants You To Save Up [NPR]

Image via Everett Collection/Shutterstock.