Future bias in action: does the past matter more when you can affect it?

Synthese 198 (12):11327-11349 (2020)
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Philosophers have long noted, and empirical psychology has lately confirmed, that most people are “biased toward the future”: we prefer to have positive experiences in the future, and negative experiences in the past. At least two explanations have been offered for this bias: belief in temporal passage and the practical irrelevance of the past resulting from our inability to influence past events. We set out to test the latter explanation. In a large survey, we find that participants exhibit significantly less future bias when asked to consider scenarios where they can affect their own past experiences. This supports the “practical irrelevance” explanation of future bias. It also suggests that future bias is not an inflexible preference hardwired by evolution, but results from a more general disposition to “accept the things we cannot change”. However, participants still exhibited substantial future bias in scenarios in which they could affect the past, leaving room for complementary explanations. Beyond the main finding, our results also indicate that future bias is stake-sensitive and that participants endorse the normative correctness of their future-biased preferences and choices. In combination, these results shed light on philosophical debates over the rationality of future bias, suggesting that it may be a rational response to empirical realities rather than a brute, arational disposition.
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