Why Reasonable People Ignore the Future

When people discount the future and act in short-sighted ways, futurists and visionaries can get very frustrated and dismissive of this “head-in-the-sand” behavior. Even if this disregard for the future is unwise, there might be at least three understandable reasons to justify this behavior.

In recent survey research, the Institute for the Future found that most Americans rarely think about the far future of 30 years. More than a third rarely think about what they will do 10 years from now; about one-fifth think about this once a year. Survey respondents did say they think about their five-year future more frequently, even monthly. IFTF Research Director Jane McGonigal also cites brain imaging studies that suggest the farther out into the future something seems to be, the more our brain fires like this is happening to someone else.

In my almost 20 years working to help people and organizations explore the future, I have heard three somewhat reasonable explanations for why smart people choose to ignore the future.  

1.     Now matters most. The daily demands of our lives force us to focus first on immediate tasks and challenges. Apparently our brains are wired to reinforce this. Our survival instincts require us to deal with immediate challenges. Our need to manage a lot of complexity favors keeping structures and processes that seem to work in place. Despite the belief that a good crisis should not be wasted if we want change, organizations and individuals under stress have limited capacity to think clearly and creatively about solutions. They will grab any feasible option available to ease the pain in that moment.

2.     Complex problems are too hard for a single individual or organization to solve. Climate change is a good illustration of why reasonable people fail to act. Even if you are not a climate denier, what can you do to keep the oceans from rising, or protect impoverished people and endangered species as their worlds become inhabitable? We give into the hopelessness of the situation and opt for avoidance behaviors, becoming dis-empowered. The most important work we need to do on behalf of the future always requires a collaborative and focused response. The bigger the problem the more we have to work together to solve it. The first step is finding allies and having the patience and perseverance to sustain these coalitions for change.

3.     The future is so unpredictable, why even try to plan? This is the excuse I hear most often as the argument against strategic planning.  Futurists learn to challenge the assumptions and help people consider alternative futures. Forecasting is fraught with risk, and even if we do get the expected future, it might hold a few twists we didn’t anticipate. A few current examples: long patterns of change like globalization start to look iffy in the face of rising nationalism; at-risk millennials are defying generational forecasts that theirs will be a more multicultural and socially tolerant cohort; and intense political polarization undermines any attempts to find workable public policies. Still, individuals and organizations that think about these crosscurrents of change are better able to cope with uncertainty as they press ahead with their strategies and plans.

Futurists and visionaries may never persuade the majority to care as deeply about the future as they do. But they might have a better chance of overcoming denial and disinterest if they can develop some understanding and empathy for why reasonable people might choose to act like they don't care.

Small and regular investments in our future can alter the momentum of the present and clarify our stance in the midst of uncertainty. Engaging with others will over time multiply the collective impact of our aspirations and actions on behalf of a preferred future. While we might be somewhat diverted by unforeseen changes, we are more likely to find ourselves in a preferred future if we have a vision and plan for the journey.