June 8, 2016

How Do Feelings About Your Past, Present, and Future Selves Affect You?

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Edouard Eisenheim, PhD, and Yosef Sokol, MA

Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York (Dr Eisenheim and Mr Sokol) and Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, New York (Dr Eisenheim)


Continuous identity is defined as the sense of a personal persistence of identity over time. It is the degree to which a person feels like the same person when looking into their past or future. Previous research has shown that people with low levels of present-to-future continuous identity (ie, feeling that you are very different or alienated from your future self) are more likely to make negative decisions that benefit only their current selves and not their future selves. In fact, the more distance that people feel from their future selves, the more long-term self-disadvantageous behavior they have.

In addition to feeling a disconnect between their present and future selves, people may also feel a lack of similarity between their past and present selves. While a few studies have looked into whether feeling a lack of connection to one’s past self is related to depression, these studies suffered from methodological issues such as nonvalidated measures and unstructured interviews. Additionally, their limited focus on the similarity of the present self to the past self (and not to the future self) led us to investigate in a recent study whether, just as the lack of perception of similarity to the future self predicts disadvantageous behavior, it would also predict negative mood and suicidality.

We collected data using the Amazon Mechanical Turk subject pool, which is an online venue for people to perform tasks such as participating in a study. The pool has a similar prevalence of clinical variables such as depression and anxiety as participant pools obtained through more traditional methods. We used two validated measures to assess continuous identity. The first was a Venn diagram featuring 2 sets of 7 pairs of circles with increasing levels of overlap. Participants selected the circle pair that best described how similar and connected they currently felt to their past selves 10 years ago and to their future selves 10 years from now. The second measure we used was a list of 20 words that the subjects rated on how well the words described them now compared with in the past and in the future. We also measured negative mood, suicidality, and negative life events using validated scales.

Our results showed that continuous identity disturbances are significantly associated with depressed mood, even when taking into account negative life events, and they predict suicidal behavior endorsement, even when taking into account negative life events and depressed mood. Our findings suggested that present-to-future diachronic disunity was a more important variable to consider for both mood disturbance and suicidality than was past-to-present disunity.

We had several ways to interpret these findings. It may be that negative mood and resulting cognitive inflexibility cause lower levels of continuous identity. It also may be that feeling dissimilar and disconnected with your future self increases the risk for making negative life choices and sacrificing future self-interests, ultimately raising the risk for depression and suicidality. Self-disunity may be both a cause and a consequence of depression. Based on this study, it may be useful to develop psychological intervention strategies to strengthen a unified sense of self over time, which may lead to a decrease in negative mood or suicidality that is mediated by a lack of continuous identity.

Financial disclosure:Dr Eisenheim and Mr Sokol had no relevant personal financial relationships to report. ​

Category: Depression
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