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As people live longer, a retirement crisis looms. By some accounts, half of all households are at risk for coming up short on retirement money. Why? Partly because people aren't saving enough. Well, new research suggests a novel way to change that.

As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, it involves a virtual glimpse into the future.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: There are lots of reasons people don't save more, including a sense that they don't have much to spare. But some of the biggest barriers are psychological.

HAL HERSHFIELD: You know, when you make a decision now about yourself in the future, that distant self almost feels like a stranger.

LUDDEN: Hal Hershfield is with New York University's Stern School of Business. He says when we think about ourselves in the future, we actually use the same part of our brain as when we think about a stranger. Hershfield and a group of researchers wanted to help young people vividly imagine their own old age. They recruited college-aged men and women, put goggles on them, and sent them into a virtual reality laboratory where there was a mirror.

HERSHFIELD: Just like a mirror you would see in the bathroom sink in the morning. And in front of them they would see an image of their future selves.

LUDDEN: An image Photoshopped to look like they were 68 or 70, like special effects in a movie. Half the people in the study saw that. The rest saw a virtual version of their current selves. Researchers posed questions, prompting people to chat while gazing at their image in the mirror.

HERSHFIELD: Where are you from? Where did you grow up? What are your likes, dislikes, passions, hobbies, etc.

LUDDEN: Later, these people were asked a series of financial questions and those who saw their older selves were willing to put twice as much money into a long-term savings account.

LAURA CARSTENSEN: It's fascinating. It really did have an effect.

LUDDEN: Co-researcher Laura Carsensen is with the Stanford Center on Longevity. She says three variations of the study had similar results.

CARSTENSEN: When people can really connect to themselves and say, that person at 70 -that's me, actually, they tend to want to take care of that person more.

LUDDEN: This is actually an experiment you can try at home, if you dare.

All right. Here we go. Submit.

A number of online programs use rough overlays to age a photograph. I used April Age and, in about two minutes...

OK. I'm sliding toward 72. Uh-oh. Oh, no.

I dragged the slider forward three decades, watching my face get blotchy, puffy and wrinkly.

Oh, bad.

It's pretty scary, but researchers say that's not their goal. They want avatars realistic enough for people to bond with their septuagenarian selves and they used a sophisticated time-consuming program to create them. Now, there's an effort to develop that for wider use.

CATHY SMITH: So you need to look at things like wrinkles and jowls and hairlines and hair colors and to do that in an automated way.

LUDDEN: Cathy Smith is with the Center for Behavioral Finance, part of Allianz, the life insurance company. She sees potential.

SMITH: The idea is to create a tool that either financial advisors can use with their clients or that could be incorporated into the services that a 401K plan provider offers to their clients.

LUDDEN: Think employee orientation at a new job. See yourself at age 70. Now, how much do you want to pony up for your 401K?

As we all live longer, Stanford's Laura Carstensen hopes to see a cultural shift toward more long-term thinking. She says we ask small children all the time, what do you want to be when you grow up?

CARSTENSEN: Nobody ever says to you, when you're in your 20s and 30s, what are you going to do when you're retired? What are you going to be like? What will your hobbies be? You know, where will you be traveling?

LUDDEN: If we simply imagined such things, she says, we'd likely make all kinds of decisions today that would make our real future selves much more happy.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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