The Skill We Need in 2021 Is Mental Time Travel

A psychology researcher explains how to let your future self guide you through a rocky present

Image: Yagi Studio/Getty Images

Humans have always been pretty terrible at predicting our own futures. Again and again, research has shown just how little we grasp about who we’ll be down the road: Our beliefs about what will make us happy often miss the mark. We (incorrectly) cast our future selves in an unrealistic, positive light. We struggle to draw a line from our present actions and decisions to their downstream impacts.

All this would be true even without Covid. But for most of us, living through a pandemic has made the future feel even murkier and difficult to imagine, full of questions big (What’s going to happen to my job?) and small (When will I go back to pants that button?). At the same time, understanding the link between our present and future selves — the consequences of the choices we make and the risks we take — is now more critical than ever. Once-simple decisions, like whether to have a group of friends over, can now carry life-or-death stakes. Connecting with our future selves is what keeps them, and those around us, safe. It’s what gives us a sense of control.

So how can we get better at the sort of mental time travel that this moment demands of us? It’s the type of question I’ve built a career out of studying. In my research on emotional regulation as the director of Bard’s Regulation of Everyday Affect, Craving, and Health (REACH) Lab, I’ve found that one of the most important tools at our disposal is an empirically vetted strategy known as cognitive reappraisal.

There are two flavors of cognitive reappraisal, which involves reevaluating an emotion-eliciting stimulus — a situation, a social interaction, a self-generated thought — in order to alter its emotional impact or change behavior: distancing and simulation. Here’s how to put each of them to work in your own mind.

Give yourself some space (from you)

Psychological distancing is exactly what it sounds like: You’re putting some distance between yourself and your emotions. Adopt a point of view other than yourself in the moment — that could be yourself, someone you know, some anonymous other person — and think through the issue from this more neutral perspective to rationally assess whatever feelings you’re currently dealing with.

Let’s be honest: Seeing social media photos of someone else’s indoor dinner party feels pretty crappy. You miss being in a group, catching up over a glass of wine, seeing walls that aren’t yours. If the dual punch of envy and sadness is enough to have you thinking about taking a day off from social distancing just this once, you can use someone else’s perspective — an exhausted doctor friend, an immunocompromised colleague — to work through the moment and feel more grounded in the choices you’ve been making.

Distancing is a tactic that’s particularly suited for these times, but it’s something to keep in your psychological toolbox long after the pandemic is over. Multiple studies have demonstrated how distancing can improve our well-being, helping us to be more present, flexible, and adaptive. When we put some breathing room between ourselves and our emotions, we lessen their power, clearing the way for us to make decisions that may be less appealing in the moment but have more of a long-term payoff.

Choose your adventure

Another reappraisal tactic, simulation, helps us run through the long-term consequences — both positive and negative — of our behaviors, which can put our future selves in clearer focus.

Let’s go back to that dinner party for a minute. Play it out: If you went, you’d probably have a fun evening and then head home. Great. You might expose yourself to a potentially deadly virus, then carry that virus home to your partner or roommates and anyone else you interacted with. Less great. Or you might be fine, but spend the next week with a gnawing sense of dread or guilt as you waited to get tested. Knowing the possible outcomes is one thing, but engaging with the emotional reality of each of those outcomes helps make them feel more real.

In studies, simulation has been shown to reliably alter people’s cravings for food as well as drugs, including methamphetamine. It sounds simple, but sometimes, pausing to think through the direct cause-and-effect chain really can be enough to push us toward more sound decisions.

Taken together, these reappraisal tactics can help us build a more resilient and coherent sense of self over time. Distancing anchors us in the present, allowing us to keep our emotions in check, while simulation gives us a window into the future. In a time of what feels like infinite unknowns, cognitive reappraisal is also a way to make sure that there’s one thing you can know fully: yourself.

Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of the REACH Lab (reachlab.bard.edu) at Bard College.

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