How We Think About The Future Affects Our Wider Behavior

We tend to think of people who think a lot about the future as being particularly bold and adventurous.  A recent study, from Emory University, suggests that might not actually be the case however, and indeed such people might actually be more risk averse than their peers.

The researchers used Twitter as their Petri dish and monitored some 40,000 users, and they wanted to mine the content shared on the platform for its ‘future sightedness’, and the subsequent impact then on the decision-making of those people.

They used a range of methods to build up and analyze the trail left by the content shared in tweets.  Users were selected after ‘auditioning’ on Mechanical Turk, with each user not only volunteering their content but then participating in a range of experiments.

For instance, one experiment required participants to answer a classic delay discounting question, such as would you prefer $60 today or $100 in six months?  The findings from these experiments was then cross-referenced with the tweets made by those people.

Future thinking

The analysis revealed that people whose tweets suggested far future-sightedness were more likely to delay gratification than their peers with more near future-sighted tweets.  It suggests that simply thinking about the future is not enough to shed light on our investment choices, but how far we think into the future is.

The team then delved further into this finding via a second experiment that revolved around a digital Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART).  This would reward participants with real money every time they inflated a balloon, but each inflation ran the risk of popping the balloon, which would result in no money being earned at all.  They could stop inflating at any time to pocket the money.

The experiment revealed that those who thought furthest into the future would stop inflating earlier, thus lowering their risk of it popping.

It’s an interesting finding, and indeed when users were identified by state, there were clear trends between their Twitter behavior and the likelihood of residents of those states engaging in risky behavior, such as driving without a seat belt.

Even more interesting was the finding that states with more far-sighted people would typically spend more on things such as education, highways and leisure facilities.

It’s interesting work, not only for the findings but also the growing role Twitter is playing in such research.  It’s a role that the team believe will only grow.

“Through social media, we’re amassing huge amounts of data on ourselves, behaviorally and over time, that is leaving behind a kind of digital phenotype,” they explain. “We’re now in an age where we have big-data analytical tools that can extract information to tell us something indirectly about an individual’s cognitive life, and to predict what an individual might do in the future.”