Will Coming Face to Face with Your Future Self Help You Plan for Retirement?

by John Kiernan on December 12, 2012

Retirement and Face RecognitionHave you ever seen one of those movies where the police or some super-secret spy agency uses cutting-edge technology to project what a fugitive or rogue agent looks like today based on a really old picture?  I’m pretty sure they used something along those lines in The Fugitive, U.S. Marshalls, and the Bourne series.  Well, as it turns out, such predictive appearance tools aren’t the sole domain of the authorities.  Retirement planners are getting in the act too.

I’ll give you a second to let that sink in.

Now that you’ve had time to wrap your mind around the juxtaposition of dramatized crime fighting techniques and a subject as stuffy as retirement planning, I’ll elaborate.  Merrill Lynch recently came out with a new social tool aptly called Face Retirement that ostensibly allows you to take a picture of yourself in order to see what you’ll look like as you age, much like the smartphone app “Photo Booth.”  Sure, they throw some retirement saving options and cost-of-living projections in there too, but those things aren’t all that interesting.

What everyone really wants to know is:  Is that really what I’m going to look like?

Dr. Hal Hershfield, an associate professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business, helped shed some light on that, given that the research he conducted along with six colleagues at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University serves as the foundation for the Face Retirement program.

“A lot of our research subjects, upon seeing their future images, said, ‘Wow, that looks just like my grandmother,’ or ‘that looks just like my grandfather,’” Hershfield said, adding that Merrill Lynch’s age projection program is one of the best he’s seen (that exact program wasn’t used in his research).  “If there’s one older person you’ll probably look like it’s probably your grandfather, right?  There are so many factors at play, though.  You might gain weight, you might lose weight, you might lose hair, etc., so it’s not perfect.”

In other words, there are obviously countless fluid variables that impact your future appearance, thereby limiting the effectiveness of programs like Face Retirement, and since the technology hasn’t been around all that long, there’s no hard data to gauge its practical effectiveness.  Nevertheless, the use of this type of technology for retirement planning purposes obviously isn’t as crazy as you might’ve initially thought.  It’s based on academic research, after all.

Hershfield’s study –“Increasing Saving Behavior Through Age-Progressed Renderings of the Future Self” –  found that showing people projections of what they’ll look like down the road did in fact lead them to place considerably more importance on saving now, largely because it makes the future more tangible.

“The impetus of the study was people are living longer, they’re retiring at the same age, and they’re undersaving, so you’ve got kind of the perfect storm happening.  We were trying to figure out how can we affect people for the better, how can we potentially make them save more?” Hershfield said.  “One of the underlying reasons that we found in our research and that some philosophers have pointed to is the relatively simple idea that people oftentimes feel a lack of connection to their future self.  The basic idea is that you know that your self in the future is you, but it feels so distant, it feels so far off that it, on an emotional level, seems like a stranger.”

And who wants to give a cut of every paycheck to a stranger, right?

The academic research and Merrill’s product are both important because 56% of people now plan to retire later than they did last year and 52% of folks classified as affluent have saved less than $250k for retirement, according to a Merrill Edge survey.  You can attribute that to a combination of the economic downturn, market uncertainty, and lacking financial literacy, but retirement is a bottom line business, and anything you can do to prepare yourself sooner is worth it.

So snap a pic, take a peek into the future, and give some much-needed attention to your 401-k, IRA, and stock portfolio.  Oh, and if future-you is looking a bit haggard, here are some tips from the Mayo Clinic on skin care:

  • Use sunscreen (at least SPF 15!) and limit your exposure during the middle of the day
  • Stop smoking (it deprives your skin of nutrients, limits blood flow in your face, and leads to wrinkles)
  • Fill your diet with fruits, veggies, lean proteins, and whole grains
  • Use a good moisturizer and gentle soaps
  • Limit stress

Good luck; I’ll catch ya in the old folks home (I’ll be the guy lookin’ like Dorian Grey)!

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