The question is an old favourite – if you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self? Yet despite the popularity of this thought experiment, no one has, until now, actually studied what people would tell themselves.
Reporting their findings in The Journal of Social Psychology Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord at Clemson University have done just that in two surveys of hundreds of participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website. Their findings show that people’s advice to their younger selves is overwhelmingly focused on prior relationships, educational opportunities and personal worth, echoing similar results derived from research into people’s most common regrets in life. Moreover, participants who said they had followed the advice they would give to their younger selves were more likely to say that they had become the kind of person that their younger self would admire. “…[W]e should consult ourselves for advice we would offer to our younger selves,” the researchers said. “The data indicate that there is much to be learned that can facilitate wellbeing and bring us more in line with the person that we would like to be should we follow that advice.”
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; to reflect on whether following this advice would help them become more like the person they aspire to be or ought to be; whether they had actually followed the advice later in life; to 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 to 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, such as a time they were bullied, 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).
Well over half the participants in both studies said that 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 preliminary research on an unexplored topic and it’s possible the results might differ in other cultures and using other methods of collecting people’s reflections. However, the work lays the foundation for further 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. “This initial foray into advice to one’s younger self clearly raises so many interesting research questions, many of which will hopefully be examined in months and years to come,” the researchers said.