FaceApp May Help Unlock a Genuine Psychological Benefit for Users

"There’s certainly the potential there for this trend to be something that helps people."

by James Dennin

Among the pantheon of internet time-wasters, you could do a lot worse than the FaceApp Challenge, the app-based meme of the moment that involves sharing an image of an artificially aged version of yourself.

Engaging with a realistic rendering of your aged self can yield a surprising psychological benefit, as documented by a famous 2011 study. Researchers found that subjects who engaged with an aged version of themselves using virtual reality exhibited a greater tendency to deny themselves short-term rewards in exchange more substantial long-term rewards. Temporal or time discounting, the human tendency to prioritize what we can enjoy right now instead of what we will enjoy later in life, has long been cited as one of the chief psychological barriers to retirement saving.

“People who feel closer or stronger relationship with their future self are more willing to make more sacrifices for that distant self,” Hal Hershfield, one of the 2011 paper’s co-authors and psychology professor at UCLA, tells Inverse. “They’re more likely to save, and they’re also more likely to exercise.”

Me, about to go increase my recurring 401(k) contributions. 

FaceApp/James Dennin

It’s important not to get too far ahead of ourselves. In the Hershfield study, for example, people didn’t just look at an altered selfie. They interacted with the aged version of themselves using an avatar, and answered questions, including one about their passions. Crucially, Hershfield notes, they also completed a money allocation task shortly after engaging with their aged avatar. For the subjects, interacting with an aged version of themselves was paired with a savings opportunity.

“I love this new trend but I’m not confident it will have real impacts on behavior because it’s sort of done in the wild,” he explains. “I can only guess at how engaged people are with the image itself. Are they really thinking about how they’ll look older? Or is it just a fun thing to share with their friends?”

"There’s certainly the potential there for this trend to be something that helps people

Then again, Hershfield also notes that FaceApp’s renderings are uncannily accurate, much better than what his team had to work with when they conducted the original study eight years ago. And when paired with a savings opportunity — like, say, if your robo-advisor had you engage with an aged version of yourself before having you indicate the monthly withdrawal amount for your retirement account — then the effects could potentially be powerful.

In Hershfield’s initial study, for example, subjects who engaged with their virtual selves put more than twice as much money toward retirement in the subsequent money allocation task, an average of $172 compared with just $80 in the control group.

An example of one of the aging avatars used in the original Hershfield study. 

Hal Hershfield et. al. 

“There’s certainly the potential there for this trend to be something that helps people,” Hershfield says. “But these types of tools need to be done in a deliberative context. It needs to be intentional.”

You were probably aware that slapping some wrinkles and a few gray hears into your visage using a glorified Insta filter wasn’t going to be an instant path to virtue. Prioritizing long-term needs over short-term ones will always be difficult. Retirement can wait; but if you’ve got an important meeting coming up, you need to get rid of that caffeine headache right now.

And of course, not everyone would feel comfortable uploading selfies to a random Russian tech company’s servers, even if some of the privacy whistleblowers may have been misinformed.

Still, the ease with which we can interact with our older selves is a more valuable innovation that it might seem at first. It doesn’t take a genius to see how financial advice might be more compelling if, instead of coming from some random rich guy, it seemed like it was coming from our future selves. Technologies like FaceTime’s aging algorithm, paired with real savings opportunities, could make that promise a reality.

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