Temptations that we take in with our senses burn inside us with a kind of emotional heat, Walter Mischel, the late renowned Stanford psychology professor, argued. Smelling the fresh doughnut in the bakery case or seeing the colorful scratch ticket at the gas station register creates a hot feeling that makes it hard to weigh future consequences—even if in cooler moments, away from such temptations, we would choose to forgo a quick fix for the sake of the future.
What lies in the future—our health in middle or old age or eventual financial stability, a community that someday has cleaner water or safer streets—is murky, mutable, uncertain. It holds none of the surefire satisfaction of the plate of french fries on the diner counter. We rarely know for sure that giving up something today will yield what we want tomorrow.
It does not help that our future selves are strangers to us. Most people don't know what they'll want for dinner next Tuesday, so how could they know exactly what they will want in the next decade?
Future generations are even more alien. We experience societal change today at a dizzying pace, with technological progress that quickly renders the future unrecognizable to the past. In the 1960s, the futurist Alvin Toffler had the prescience to identify this trend and its destructive effects on people's foresight, calling it "future shock." The malaise has only become more acute in the twenty-first century as we undergo more frequent upheavals in how we communicate, travel, and work. To make decisions for a world decades in the future while living in today's world can feel abstract and even fruitless.
For aeons, thinkers have contemplated why we sabotage our future selves when we make decisions—even when we have knowledge about the likely consequences. Aristotle wrote that akrasia, a weakness of human will, prevents us from having lives of meaning. But he also thought it ridiculous to strive for perfection in resisting indulgence, which at times brings us sustenance and pleasure. Better to strike a balance, he said, avoiding rash decisions through practices we hone over time.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors relied on their immediate impulses to survive—whether evading a snarling beast or spotting wild game. Anthropologists have suggested that perhaps we've inherited the penchant for seizing a moment's opportunity without regard for later consequences. Impulses still save our lives when we're fleeing a burning building or dodging a speeding car, but they fail us when we're trying to build a nest egg or get our neighborhood ready for the next wildfire.
Contemporary psychologists tell us that reckless decisions arise from people's default to a reflexive mode of thinking, known as "system 1." The rational and circumspect "system 2" mode of thinking is more taxing on the brain, and therefore more rarely engaged, contends Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prizewinning cognitive scientist. Neuroscientists point to the body's powerful limbic system, which governs our responses to emotions like fear, as the mechanism by which our immediate urges override caution about the future.
Plato wrote in his dialogue Protagoras in 380 BCE that it is the miscalculation of future pleasure and pain that leads to folly. In 1920, British economist Arthur Cecil Pigou similarly described humans' skewed view of what happens over time, calling it our "defective telescope." Today's economists call this pattern of making decisions "hyperbolic discounting," or present bias. The research of Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert shows that people fixate on what lies ahead but misgauge it. He argues that our view of the future is warped in part because we overestimate the impact of singular future events—like a job promotion—on happiness and underestimate the impact of accumulated minor events.
Each of these thinkers has helped the world understand why people make reckless decisions. But what they have told us is insufficient for the task of correcting course. In the game of telephone between such experts and the broader public, a misconception has emerged that recklessness is a fixed trait of human nature. That belief ignores the role of culture, organizations, and society—and the body of recent research findings that show we can influence and even quell recklessness. Humanity is more than mere biological programming: We can change our behavior through conscious decisions—from what we do in line at the grocery store to how we make laws. What appears our doomed fate is, in reality, a choice.