The evidence is in: we are all born to be futurists


I believe that we all need to be our own futurists: in a rapidly changing world we need the skills and capabilities to think effectively about the future so we can act better today.

Perhaps humans are all in fact born to engage deeply in the future, it is simply a capacity we need to develop further.

Renowned positive psychology professor Martin Seligman, in a recent New York Times article prefacing his forthcoming book Homo Prospectus, says humans are intrinsically focused on the future.

What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future. Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation. Other animals have springtime rituals for educating the young, but only we subject them to “commencement” speeches grandly informing them that today is the first day of the rest of their lives.

A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. The power of prospection is what makes us wise. Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain, as psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered — rather belatedly, because for the past century most researchers have assumed that we’re prisoners of the past and the present.

Seligman points to extensive brain and behavioral research that supports his case that humans are at core future-focused.

Studies of mental processes showed that people think about the future three times as much as they do about the past. Brain imaging studies show that our ability to envisage the future is deeply related to our memory process. Indeed, the fluidity of our memory serves our ability to influence our future.

Seligman concludes:

Homo prospectus… became Homo sapiens by learning to see and shape his future, and he is wise enough to keep looking straight ahead.

The capacity to look usefully into the future is within all of us.

We just need to nurture it.

Image: Christian Scheidegger