30 April 2021

Think About the Future’s Past

Emotional Futurism is a different way of shaping the future by considering about how we will feel about the past.

Christopher Butler is a designer living in Durham, NC.

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A package arrived in the morning, and when I opened it, time folded in on itself.

Inside were three photocopied images, sent among a trove of memorabilia my mother has kept for decades. One showed my father’s hand, resting flat on the image bed, palm up. The second image was of my much smaller hand, outstretched and touched by his. The third was of my hand alone. Each had a caption at the bottom, written by my father: “Taken at Daddy’s office on March 6, 1985.” I immediately called for my daughter. I wanted her to see this.

We laid the pages out on a table. I placed my hand over the image of my father’s, and they fit together perfectly. My daughter placed her hand over the image of mine, and they, too, matched.

For my daughter, fitting her body into the picture of another’s produced a similar, simple delight to placing a final puzzle piece and completing a picture. “Hah!” she exclaimed. And then, with her hand still over the image, she confirmed, “This is your hand, Daddy?” She was wrapping her mind around the notion that I had ever been so small. The time itself, the thirty-six years that had passed between then and now, are likely inconceivable to her. I replied slowly, “Yes, that was my hand when I was your age.” The words came slowly not for the purpose of clarity — not for her understanding — but because my brain, too, was struggling to make sense of the experience. I had suddenly become overwhelmed by a feeling of temporal vertigo.

These unlikely perfect matches created a strange illusion. As I lifted my hand from the image of my father’s, I had to pry from my mind the conclusion that both hands were mine. This artifact had put me in the place of my father, and had created a fuzzy duality of perception — a feeling of looking back and looking forward at the same time. I imagined my father inscribing these pages; he is a habitual memorializer of moments, always collecting bits and pieces of the present in anticipation of a later time when they will serve as beacons of the past. And, I imagined him considering that future moment, imagining for himself what it will feel like to return to the past by way of these pictures. It was that imagining within imagining that left me spinning. I had to look away to quiet the pulsing throb of time that reverberated within my own head.

Thinking about the future is something we all do. Most of the time, our prospection is emotional. We think about things we desire and imagine having them. We think about things we fear, and imagine suffering them, evading them, vanquishing them. We run scenarios in our mind so that we can process present feelings by imagining we are feeling future ones.

Some future thinking is systematic. It is the kind of trend analysis that can be projected forward. The stuff of the futurist. A good futurist is no more psychic than Sherlock Holmes, but just as hypervigilant of patterns and deft at weaving the finest threads of cause and effect.

What interests me is a synthesis of the two. I suppose you could call this emotional futurism. Emotional Futurism is not simply about projecting emotions forward. It is about shaping the future by thinking about how we will feel about its past. I think of this as proretrospection. As it turns out, thinking about the future’s past has a very real effect on the future.

In his most recent book, Precognitive Dreamwork and the Long Self, Eric Wargo writes:

“The extent to which people feel a sense of connection to their futures selves appears to predict how well they make life decisions like saving for retirement, taking care of their health, and so on. Prospection includes anticipating how we will think back on our present from a future standpoint — for instance, imagining future regrets — and this kind of thinking has implications for ethical decisions, too.”

Wargo’s book is largely about the phenomena of precognitive dreams, and how, in his interpretation, they are the result of retrocausality. It is not that the dream predicts the future; the future creates the dream. He reinforces this counterintuitive idea by describing a four-dimensional reality in which the past, present, and future are essentially simultaneous. Our selves inhabit a world like that not as a contained body moving through space, but more like a worm whose dimensions are defined by time. Our posterior, the past; our middle, the present; our head, the future. His turn of phrase, “the long self,” is, as it turns out, quite literal. And it is the idea of the long self which enriches another turn of phrase in the passage above: “…connection to…future selves.” In Wargo’s cosmology, the future self is no more detached from the present self than our own fingers are to our hands. Disconnection is the illusion. Establishing connection is to overcome the illusion.

I looked again at those pictures of my and my father’s hands. And I tried to imagine being attached to them still. It is no easy feat. Just as an image, or rather, a sense of continuity unfolds within me, I look at my own hand — my hand of the now — and it collapses. Understanding the long self and living as one are, evidently, quite different things.

But Wargo notes that feeling a connection to the future is practiced by emotional futurism. By thinking about how we might feel in the future, we can better choose actions we take now. Further in to this section of the book, Wargo cites several studies of human psychology and future thinking as evidence of the very real effect that proretrospection has. One study produced a paper entitled “Anticipated Regret: A Prospective Emotion About the Future Past.” In this paper, Marcel Zeelenberg, a Professor of Economic Psychology, writes:

“…regret is also forward looking, in the sense that decision makers can anticipate regret happening in the future. People’s decisions are sometimes influenced by these anticipations, in such a way that they choose in order to avoid future regret.”

Avoiding future regret is something I know quite a bit about. I had never heard the phrase until a therapist mentioned it to me, and I suddenly realized that is what I had spent so much of my emotional energy doing and was the root of much of my anxiety. I came to learn how to disable and re-route that thought pattern, but I also learned that, when wielded carefully, it can be a valuable skill. In fact, another study that Wargo cites showed that when people anticipate future temptations, they have a measurably higher chance of resisting it than do those who confront temptations without any preparation. Again, imagining the future emotionally, and exploring further how we might feel later about choices we make now, can actually change the choices we make.

Human psychology is puzzling, regardless of whether we imagine it contained in our known humanoid forms or the strange four-dimensional worms we might also be. Even something as seemingly simple as imagining a future emotion is much more challenging than we might assume. As I followed the trail of Wargo’s citations, I came upon another study on anticipated regret that produced a paper titled, “Reactance, Compliance, and Anticipated Regret.” The authors describe the complexity of choice by way of interweaving two psychological theories: Reactance Theory and Anticipated Regret Theory.

Imagine you are presented with a choice between two things, (A) or (B). If you are instructed to choose (A) over (B), Reactance Theory predicts that you will choose (B) because of a primary motivation to restore your right to choose. In other words, you will make a choice based upon a background value — self-determination — that doesn’t apply to differentiating between your choices.

Now, according to Anticipated Regret Theory, you are also more likely to choose (B) because you want to avoid regretting choosing (A). The anticipated regret of, “I wish I hadn’t listened to…” is more powerful than that of, “I wish I had…” perhaps because it not only assumes a negative outcome but also the relinquishment of control. You did what you were told and suffered because of it. Better to suffer at one’s own hand than that of another.

Incidentally, the same analysis can be applied to a potential anticipated regret even if choice (A) works out. In that scenario, you cannot take full credit for the results of choice (A). You have to share them with someone else. This is also a relinquishment of control and self-determination, and can get in the way of good decision making. Our pride can deny us its very object.

The threads of cause and effect are just as fine within the mind as they are in a futurist’s timeline, if not more so. As I read Eric Wargo’s book, I’m more and more aware of the timeline of the self — or as he puts it, a connection to the future — and in awe of its effects. It may be little more than a coincidence, but the evening I read the passage quoted above, I wrote it down in my notebook, turned out my light, and pondered it as I drifted off to sleep. It was the next morning that I opened an unexpected package from my mother and found myself looking back into the past.

As a four-year old child exploring a photocopier with my father, I could hardly have imagined what the next day would bring, to say nothing of the next generation. But my father, holding my hand as the scanner passed over us, certainly could because he was looking right at it. As I fit my hand into the image of his, it felt as if the veil between the past and future thinned a bit. As if I was reaching back into time. As if my long self and his intertwined in some way.

I can see now how making images and preservation — something we all do every day — can be an act of emotional futurism. We can create things with the purpose of serving as future beacons of the past, and we can use them now to imagine how we will feel then, and we can use that experience to shape what we do next. I wonder if practicing that not only can provide us with greater control over our timelines, but also a deeper understanding that we are the lines themselves.