If you’re reading this, and you’re a human being, the odds are you have a bias in your brain towards short-term thinking, towards focusing on the immediate effects of your choices and actions rather than any potential long-term consequences. This is not some character flaw in you. It’s part of what it is to be human, for all of us. It’s the pattern behind all kinds of problems in life, from overeating, gambling, smoking, impulse purchases, being prone to outbursts of anger and saying things you don’t mean, or even making poor choices when it comes to serious life decisions. You might say that the majority of human problems are caused, or exacerbated, by our tendency towards short-term thinking.
The more we learn about the brain, the more we uncover about the exact processes that operate when someone is deciding between going for a short-term gratification versus a long-term reward. For example, a study headed by psychologist Samuel McClure and neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen at Princeton University found that when people are considering the relative merits of either immediately receiving an Amazon.com gift voucher, or waiting up to four weeks to receive a higher value voucher, different areas of their brains become activated depending on what choice they make. People who chose to wait for the higher value rewards had a higher activation of the frontal lobes, the part of the brain most associated with abstract thought. In contrast, in those who went for the immediate reward, there was a higher activation of parts of the brain associated with emotion. In other words, short-term thinking is emotional thinking, long-term thinking involves more abstract, conceptual thought about a future that doesn’t exist yet.
So how can you learn to deliberately activate the areas of your brain associated with long-term thinking? Well, intriguingly, a second study carried out in Hamburg, Germany, found that there is actually a simple, reliable way to start thinking for the long-term. Participants in this study were again offered a selection of financial rewards, with the same choice of an immediate smaller sum, or a higher-value sum being offered at some distance in the future. But this time, half the participants were given an extra task to perform before making their decision, and that was to think about several things that they would be doing over the next year, holidays and vacations they had planned, courses they needed to attend, visits from friends and relatives that had been arranged, and so on. In other words, the researchers got this group of participants to focus on specific, expected future events, even though these events had no connection with the small sum of money the participants were deciding about.
As you might have guessed, reflecting on several specific future events triggered more long-term thinking in that group of participants, and they became much more likely to choose the higher-value, longer-term reward. In essence, the experimenters helped the participants to trick their own brains into making the future more real, more concrete, so that it became self-evident and obvious to them that the best choice was to go for the higher-value reward and just wait a few weeks for it.
Hypnotherapy uses this research, along with a variety of other psychological principles that I’ve used with my clients over the years, to help you to really embed in your mind this connection with the long-term future. You’ll notice that you start to instinctively make wiser, more life-enriching decisions in your daily life, and create a future for yourself where you have greater wealth, greater health, and greater happiness, because you took the time to properly think ahead, rather than falling into that old short-term impulsiveness trap.