Conflict can rob you of two precious mental faculties useful for sorting things out: The ability to view the situation from the other person’s perspective and the ability to check your impulses. New research suggests that your future self can help you recapture those abilities.
Confrontations and conflict require self-control to resist the tempting words on the tips of our tongues — the kinds of words we may well regret later. A region of our brains called the prefrontal cortex helps us with that task.
Now, research out of the University of Zurich and the University of Dusseldorf has found an additional mechanism that’s important for self-control: Being able to direct our attention to our future needs.
What’s more, the region of the brain that plays a crucial role in situations requiring self-control when no one else is present is the same region responsible for helping us take another person’s perspective during social interactions. The tempero-parietal junction, or TPJ, promotes self-control by overcoming bias for the present self.
In one study, participants were asked to choose between a smaller payoff given immediately and a larger payoff given in the future. In a second study, participants were asked to choose between a payoff that benefitted themselves only and a payoff that benefitted them less but also benefitted someone else.
After researchers used non-invasive brain stimulation techniques to disrupt activation of the TPJ, participants tended to make choices there were more impulsive and more selfish — they chose the immediate payoff and the payoff for themselves only. The disruption of the TPJ also made them less able to perspective-take, or look at things from a point of view other than their own.
Researcher Alexander Soutschek explains, “This means that the same brain mechanisms may be necessary to be patient for a future gain and for being able to share with another person.”
It’s like your future self is a whole separate person
The researchers concluded that, from a neural perspective, the TPJ essentially views our future self like it’s a separate person.
And invoking that future self may be key to delaying the kinds of instant gratification we feel when we eat that piece of chocolate cake even while trying to diet — or lash out at someone during conflict even while we want desperately to build a stronger relationship with them.
While the study didn’t examine conflict, appealing to our future selves when we want more self-control or need to be able to perspective-take is consistent with other self-distancing techniques useful for self-management in stressful situations.
The takeaway for conflict and conflict resolution? When we’re navigating our own conflicts, consciously appealing to our future selves may help reduce impulsivity and make choices that serve our longer-term interests.
And when we see others knocked off balance during conflict, inviting them to consider their future selves looking back at the conversation may be an excellent tool for the mediator’s toolbox.