New research suggests that thinking about death makes people value the future more — at least when money is involved.
“Death is a stark reminder that the future is not guaranteed, so it is reasonable to believe that thoughts of personal mortality make one even more inclined to value today over the future,” Nicholas J. Kelley and Brandon J. Schmeichel wrote in their study.
“On the other hand, people make plans and strive for goals (including more life) that can only be met in the future. These future goals help give meaning to the present and can provide psychological protection against the threat of death. In this sense it seems reasonable to believe that reminders of personal mortality make the future seem even more valuable — a precious commodity in short supply.”
In the study, published this month in PLOS One, the researchers made 118 undergraduate students either jot down thoughts about their own death or write about a painful dental procedure.
The participants were then asked if they would rather receive $50 immediately or wait three months to receive a greater amount of money. The amount of delayed money offered was gradually increased in $5 increments, allowing the researchers to see when the participants switched from preferring the immediate amount to the delayed amount.
The researchers found participants who thought about their own mortality valued the immediate reward less than participants who thought about dental pain. Those who wrote about their own death were willing trade $50 now for $66.67 in three months, while those who wrote about dental pain were willing to trade $50 for $72.84 in three months.
Participants who wrote about their death “discounted future monetary gains less than other participants, suggesting that thoughts of death may increase the subjective value of the future,” Kelley and Schmeichel said.
Thinking about death “may increase the value of the future, which in turn may activate relatively healthy, future-focused goal pursuits,” they added.
“When death recedes from focus to linger on the fringes of awareness, poor self-control and selfish decision making seem to come to the fore.”