There’s a whole booming world of research in the field of behavioral economics that is trying to use psychology and brain science to better understand how people make value judgements and decisions. Researchers working in this field have found that including time as a variable in their studies can often lead to surprising results. In the jargon of the field, it’s called dynamic inconsistency and perhaps the most widely-known example is temporal discounting – the tendency to value future rewards less than present or near-future ones.
One recent study, described in Scientific American, sought to explore factors that might change how people would divvy up rewards between themselves and future generations. Participants were asked to imagine themselves to be CEOs of an energy firm that had recently discovered a new, cheap fuel-source. In this role, it was their job to decide how to make use of this limited resource over a timespan of multiple generations – how much to use now and how much to save for those of the future.
For the variable, some of the study participants were given an article to read beforehand that told the story of a fatal airplane crash. The idea was that they were being primed to imagine their own mortality, and the results showed that those who had read the article tended to save more energy for future use, leading the researchers to conclude that there may be something about being aware of one’s own death that triggers a stronger affiliation with future generations.