A few weeks ago, I competed in the season-ending doubles championship at a local tennis club. In the first round, my partner and I lost a tough three-setter to a talented father-son duo.

Now in his 80s, the father had lost a step, but he still had the hands and court sense of the club singles and doubles champion that he once was.

As we shook hands at the net, I wondered what I’d be doing at 80. Would I still be playing tennis, maybe competing in doubles tournaments with my own son? What about my financial situation? Would I have the cash for an annual pilgrimage to a tennis boot camp to work on my kick-serve?

It turns out that these acts of imagination may improve my chances of a financially secure retirement.

Our virtual reality goggles, ourselves

Such is the conclusion of Hal E. Hershfield and a distinguished team of collaborators, including Nobel laureate William Sharpe, who have conducted a series of experiments that introduce twenty-somethings to virtual reality versions of their elderly selves.*

For the twenty-somethings, this interaction creates a greater sense of identification with the people they will one day become. Once the current self “meets” the future self, he or she is more likely to consider the needs of his or her elderly doppelganger. We reduce our current consumption and instead invest those resources for our older selves.

I learned about this research from a fascinating “on-the-ground” account by The Wall Street Journal‘s Jason Zweig. (WSJ subscription required to view.) Deep stuff, and kind of weird. Indeed, Hershfield’s research paper itself is probably unique in social science circles for its combination of references to the 18th-century British theologian Joseph Butler, one-way ANOVA modeling, and Marcel Proust.

The implications are nevertheless intriguing, especially as we observe National Save for Retirement Week October 20–26. Let’s take a few minutes to think about our future selves, what their needs and dreams might be, and what savings decisions we can make today to help them realize those goals.

Hershfield, Hal E., et. al., 2011. “Increasing Saving Behavior Through Age-Progressed Renderings of the Future Self, ” Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 48.