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Can Thinking About Your Future Change Your Future?

Have you ever found yourself thinking about a future event, or pictured a specific incident in the future? Have you ever had a coach ask you to imagine making the perfect shot on goal or running the best race of your life? This type of thinking is called episodic future thinking, which is when your brain stops thinking about the present and instead moves into the world of a possible future. When we “pre-experience” the future, we can imagine ourselves in a specific setting with other people, performing certain actions. Thinking about the future is similar in some ways to re-experiencing the past. This is important, as the belief that a particular event could possibly occur in the future influences our behavior and decisions.

There are many factors that can influence how vivid these thoughts are, one of which is how far away in time the future event could possibly take place. Vividness refers to the clarity and number of details one experiences. Imagining oneself playing a soccer game the next day may be far clearer than imagining oneself at the Olympics ten years in the future, because it is easy to picture your current teammates playing a game at the local field, but ten years from now you might not even know where the Olympics will be! People tend to place future thoughts in more familiar locations when they are closer to the present time. The locations and people placed in future thoughts are comprised by the memory of already known settings and humans. These memories can be assembled in a mixed fashion to create an entirely novel scenario. For example, when picturing yourself playing at the Olympics, your imagined teammates may be made up of high school teammates, college teammates, and stars on professional teams. Additionally, this episodic future thinking can be observed from different points of view—from one’s own eyes, like you as a player, or from an outside stranger’s point of view, like a fan in the stands.

Imagining oneself playing in the future Olympics may lead some people to feel like they are living in the future, while others can imagine fabricated future events without this feeling that they are pre-experiencing their future. D’Argembeau & Van der Linden (2012) tried to find the difference between these two types of experiences and figure out what caused this difference. One proposed cause could be how relevant the imagined future events are to the individual’s personal goals. Maybe you are dying to play in the Olympics and become a professional soccer player, or maybe you just play the game because you love the sport. The researchers investigated whether the personal feelings people experienced were related to how important or relevant the imagined events were.

In this study, the researchers asked their participants to imagine a specific event in the future. They were then told certain words and asked to imagine a specific occasion in the future in response to this word. For example, when given a word such as “family,” participants were asked what this word made them think of. The participants were then asked to rate how vivid their thoughts were, how many visual and sensory details they experienced, and how clear the imagined people and location of the episodic future thought were. Finally, the participants guessed how probable it was that this event could actually happen.

The researchers found that how familiar the location and people imagined were had a significant impact on how vivid the thought was. They also found that events that were imagined to be farther off in time were less clear and more often experienced from an observer’s viewpoint compared to the participant’s own eyes. So, when imagining oneself playing at the Olympics in the future, people imagine themselves as fans watching themselves play more often than through their own eyes as a player in the game. The viewpoint was not dependent on the familiarity of the thought, as the researchers previously thought. Finally, more important events to the participant seemed to occur closer in time to the present moment. Events that were thought about more often also appeared to be closer in time.

The researchers found that the sense of pre-existing the future, the belief that an event could actually happen in the future, and the perceived distance from the present moment in time all had a large impact on the vividness of the experience. When participants imagined events that aligned with their goals or values, the episodic future thoughts felt closer in time and the participants reported a greater sense of “experiencing the future.” Therefore, this could really influence the amount of motivation a person experiences when trying to achieve their goal. This could be useful for many groups of people such as athletes or students, as imagining oneself in the future succeeding (e.g. in a competition, on a test) could potentially provide the necessary motivation to actually achieve the goal. By simply thinking about and imagining success, individuals could possibly increase their actual accomplishments. So, if you ever want to make it to the Olympics, start picturing yourself competing now!

D’Argembeau, A., & Van der Linden, M. (2012). Predicting the phenomenology of episodic future thoughts. Consciousness and Cognition, 21, 1198-1206.

You can access the article here

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  1. October 22nd, 2015 at 00:51 | #1

    In their study, D’Argembeau and Van der Linden found that future memories that were about familiar things were more vivid (2012.) I wonder how closely this is tied to memory. In class we said that one of the uses of memory is for planning future events. Memory is needed to remember situations in the past and the outcomes to appropriately be able to think about similar actions in the future. This is seen in people with retrograde amnesia who have a hard time planning and imaging the future. Imagining takes prior knowledge. You can’t imagine something that you know nothing about, you must have a memory of it, even if it is small. It is possible that the participants had more vivid images about future events that contained familiar people and locations because they have more memories for those things. If you know more about a person’s behavior, you have more information to base your future image of that person on. For example, if asked to imagine your family in the future, if you have strong memories of being very close with your siblings, the information from those memories may lead you to imagine yourself still close to them in the future. Or if every Christmas of your childhood, your family took a family photo in front of the Christmas tree, you may use those memories to imagine your future family all in front of the tree. But if you are asked to imagine something in your future that you have few past memories about, you will have little to draw on.

  2. May 19th, 2013 at 22:18 | #2

    I wonder if the converse could be true; that is, negative thought leading to more negative outcomes. In social psych we learned that people with a negative self view perpetuate that view by accepting negative attributes as true and rejecting positive attributes as false about themselves. I wonder if this could be another way in which people fulfill their own prophecies.

  3. May 13th, 2013 at 14:19 | #3

    I find this to be a very interesting topic, specifically as it relates, like you said, to the classroom and in athletics. I think that many people who have participated in athletics have had a coach instruct them to imagine the ball going in the hoop or into the corner of the net. When I’m shooting free throws on the basketball court, before each shot I visualize the ball going in. I’m sure that this future episodic thinking has implications for the classroom as well. I would be interested to see if any research has been done on this relating to the classroom and studying or testing.

  4. Karlyn Donovan
    April 30th, 2013 at 22:32 | #4

    I always wondered why so many of my coaches growing up told my teams to visualize the game before hand and to imagine ourselves doing everything right and winning the game. This is a really interesting topic and the findings are even more interesting and have given me some insight to what my coaches were trying to achieve. A lot people, including myself, day dream about what ifs in life and many times it has to do with the future, but lots of times they are unrealistic visions and goals. I wonder if the practicality of the future episodic thinking would affect the vividness and closeness.

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