First systematic study of the advice people would give to their younger selves
If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self? It’s a popular thought experiment that has recently been the subject of a study in the United States. *Christian Jarrett, from BPS Research Digest, reports.
US researchers Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord of Clemson University conducted two surveys of hundreds of participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website. Their findings, published in **The Journal of Social Psychology, show that people’s advice to their younger selves is overwhelmingly focused on prior relationships, educational opportunities and personal worth.
The two studies followed a similar format with the participants (selected to be aged at least 30 years) asked to:
– Provide either three pieces or one piece of advice to their younger selves;
– Reflect on whether following this advice would help them become more like the person they aspire to be or ought to be;
– Reflect on whether they had actually followed the advice later in life;
– Consider a pivotal event that had shaped them in life, especially in light of the advice they’d chosen to give their younger selves; and
– Reflect on what their younger self would make of their current self.
Participants mostly gave themselves advice around relationships (“Don’t marry her. Do. Not. Marry. Her.”), education (“Go to college”), selfhood (“Be yourself”), direction and goals (“Keep moving, keep taking chances, and keep bettering yourself”), and money (“Save more, spend less”). These topics closely match the most common topics mentioned in research on people’s regrets.
Most participants said that the advice they offered was tied to a pivotal event in their past, e.g. a bullying incident, a relationship breakup, or an incident involving drink or drugs, and about half the time they had regret for what had happened. The timing of these pivotal events was most commonly between age 10 and 30 (consistent with research into the reminiscence bump – the way that we tend to recall more autobiographical memories from our teens and early adulthood).
More than half the participants in both studies said they had since followed the advice that they would offer to their younger selves. The majority of participants also said that following the advice would have brought their younger self closer to the kind of person they aspired to be, rather than making them more like their “ought self” (that is, the kind of person that other people or society said they should be).
Finally, as mentioned, participants who said they’d followed their own advice (to their younger selves) were more likely to say that their younger high-school self would have respect for the person they had now grown into.
This is an unexplored topic and the results could differ in other cultures and using other methods of gathering data. The work does, however, raise further interesting research questions, such as how the advice we give our past selves might vary in quantity and kind as we get older; and how following the advice might affect our emotions and hope for the future.
*Dr Christian Jarrett was Founding Editor of BPS Research Digest. In July he became Senior Editor at Aeon magazine, working on their forthcoming Psyche channel devoted to psychological wellbeing.
**If I knew then what I know now: Advice to my younger self, Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord, The Journal of Social Psychology
Photo by Aaron Andrew Ang