Future Oriented Thinking

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Walter Mischel, a behavioral psychologist at Stanford University, examined impulsivity among five-year-old children. Mischel placed a small marshmallow in front of each child, instructing them if they wait to eat the marshmallow, he would reward them with two marshmallows when he returned. Some waited and subsequently enjoyed a second marshmallow; but for others, the temptation was too much—they forfeited the future reward for immediate pleasure. A few decades later, Mischel followed-up on these young marshmallow-eaters. He surprisingly discovered the five-year old’s that waited—on average—performed better in college, relationships and careers. The young children that waited displayed future oriented decision making. They made a sacrifice in the present that benefited the future.

Real life decisions are more complex than choosing between a single treat now or double that treat later. The future lacks certainty. Wisdom teaches that suspending some immediate gratifications for bountiful futures is necessary. Restraining from immediate pleasure for predicted futures requires several skills. First, we must consider how the present action will impact the future. Second, we must have sufficient self discipline to delay pleasure.  Intervening with automatic reactions to impulse demands the limited resource of psychic energy. Without intentional intervention, we risk losing a dazzling future for the sparse benefits in the present.

See Ego Depletion and Delay of Gratification for more on these topics

Refining Future Oriented Predictions

Actions are maladaptive when they fail to secure our desires. Sometimes, we realize this too late. We look back and notice what we should have done. Wisdom is often clearer when we look backward. Our future minded skills must be refined. Our predictive skills vary. A lot depends on our willingness to honestly evaluate errors in predictions and make adjustments. If we consistently believe an action rewards differently than reality dictates, our future minded needs sharpening. Something is askew.

Complexity complicates decisions. The moment of choice is often not forced at any particular point; we have the option to wait. Opportunities can be squandered as we procrastinate, waiting for more information. The skill of predicting future consequences allows for early future oriented action with minimum failure.


Instead of wisdom from error, we often employ defenses. We deny the impact of our choice on the resulting failure. Our wrong choices loses ego damaging poignancy but continues to haunt.

We need more clarity of vision—a strong nexus between choice and the consequence. If we can’t see the connection between our lack of punctuality, skill and attentiveness and being passed over for promotion, we won’t make the sacrifices needed to change.

​See Behavior and Consequence for more on this topic

Present Mindedness

​Behaviors focused on present reward still have some benefits. The single marshmallow is still sweet. The immediate rewards don’t always destroy futures. However, without the slightest future oriented thoughts, we destroy futures.

We usually don’t adopt maladaptive behaviors that lack some reward. We often fail to accurately weigh costs against future gains. And once habit takes hold, we just act without any thought at all. For example, with drug addictions, the victim continues the maladaptive behaviors long after the pleasures have ceased. Under the spell of addiction, new rules invade, utility of choice diminishes, and victims just act, moving towards our own demise.

These patterns of apply to more then an opiate craze addiction. We may habitually explode in anger, or shutdown from connection, or avoid opportunity. These actions all our present minded responses. We bow in servitude to the swelling feelings pushing for immediate action. Addictions befall us in countless fashions, diminishing future minded considerations.

“Actions are maladaptive when they fail to secure our desires.”

The Cost of Present Mindedness

While present mindedness, the opposite of future oriented thinking, secures many immediate pleasures and escapes difficult emotions, present moment focus also exacts a heavy toll on futures, increasing future anxiety with multiplying difficulties.

​Wise choices with future benefits often demand momentary discomfort, utilizing energies to refrain from impulse now while constructing fruitful futures—less stress, more rewards.

When we act without intention, jumping at the strongest impulse, we often lose. Slow down and ask, “what are my options? What are the likely consequences? What can I do in the present to achieve the future I desire?”

We constructed our futures in the present. As we refine our future minded abilities, we have less prediction errors, resulting in more favorable results. We need to know which actions to take, how to refrain from destructive pleasures in the present, and how to adjust when unplanned events intrude. If we want to retire, increase intimacy, or live in a nice house, these worthy goals require action in the present, sacrificing the single sweet marshmallow for a much larger achievement later.

Would you like to eat that marshmallow now?

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