Pele Young was a dolphin trainer at the Oceanaria Colombia. It’s on a tiny island off the Colombian coast of Cartagena. Tourists arrived a few times a day. “That was a great time in my life,” she remembers. “I slept in a shack without running water. My entire wardrobe consisted of one long t-shirt and a bunch of bathing suits. I fell asleep to the sound of the dolphins playing in their enclosures. I loved every minute of it.”
Pele didn’t want to leave. But her father was getting worried. Pele had a teaching degree from Pennyslvania’s Millersville University. The oceanarium paid for Pele’s food and accommodation. But she earned just $40 a month. “My dad asked me to think about my older self,” says Pele. “I was just 24 years old. But he kept asking me to think about my retirement.”
At first, she scoffed at the idea. Retirement didn’t seem real. It was too far in the future. She was having too much fun to concern herself with that. But after a year on the island Pele realized he was right. She moved to Virginia where she began to teach high school Spanish.
Twenty years later, I was preparing a slide presentation to speak about the importance of investing early. Pele, whom I married in 2008, found a slide that she wanted me to use. It showed an old man starring in a mirror. He was looking at a younger version of himself.
“Show this image and explain what it means,” Pele said. “If a person thinks about themself as an older person, it might give an incentive to save more money. My dad helped me do that.”
As a strategy, it may have some merit.
Last week, I spoke to teachers at Frankfurt International School. I showed that slide. I asked them to think about themselves as retirees. On my way back to the United States, I bought a copy of Walter Mischel’s book, The Marshmallow Test: Why Self Control Is The Engine of Success.
Mischel’s research started at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School in the 1960s. His research team offered children a treat of their choice. They could eat that treat right away. But if they had the willpower to wait 20 minutes, they could have two treats.
He conducted similar experiments for years. By the time the subjects were between the ages of 27 and 32, he found that those who had waited to receive a second treat were leaner. They had a better sense of self-worth. They were more highly educated and they were better able to deal with stress.
Years later, when his first subjects were in their 50s, Mischel conducted MRI brain scans. The adults who had delayed gratification while in pre-school had higher activity in their prefrontal cortex area. This part of the brain helps to control impulsive behavior. The adults who couldn’t delay gratification as preschoolers had higher activity in the ventral striatum. This part of the brain is linked to desire, pleasure and addictions.
Most of the time, when people talk about Mischel’s experiments, they don’t dig deeper. Discipline, they assume, is an ovarian lottery ticket. We’re either born to save, eat well and exercise or we’re not. But there’s more to Mischel’s research.
The average preschool student gobbled up their treat after less than a minute of waiting. But then Mischel introduced some strategies. He asked the children to imagine that the treats weren’t real. This gave them the strength to wait for an average of 18 minutes.
The children also waited longer when the researchers asked them to think about fun thoughts. Visualization worked.
But could visualization work for someone who’s trying to save more money?
Professor Hal Hershfield would probably say yes. He studied a group of Stanford University undergrad students. One group looked at a photo of themselves next to an avatar that made them look much older. A second group just looked at a photo of themselves. Each group was then asked to fill out a questionnaire about saving money for the future. The group that saw an older image of themselves indicated that they would save 30 percent more money than the group that wasn’t shown the image.
Walter Mischel says, “The more emotionally connected you become to your future self, the more you will incorporate it into your present self-conception and budget, ready to share more generously from what you currently give yourself to what you allocate to yourself in the future.”
Perhaps Pele’s father helped her make that connection. Imagery, it seems, might trump the marshmallow test.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller, Millionaire Teacher and The Global Expatriate's Guide to Investing: From Millionaire Teacher to Millionaire Expat.