Donald Sutherland, Animal House and the Future Self
When we think of the film National Lampoon’s Animal House, we don’t often think about it in terms of an important money lesson. Despite its sophomoric humor, there are some deeper issues at play.
In 1978, Donald Sutherland was a huge star, having appeared in films such as Klute, Don’t Look Now and Casanova. He was a big name, well known to the over 40 crowd. When his friend John Landis came to him with the opportunity to play Professor Dave Jennings in National Lampoon’s Animal House, it was an opportunity to reach a younger audience.
During contract negotiations, Sutherland asked for a fee of $250,000. Given the film’s limited budget, Landis tried to be creative, offering $20,000 and 2% of the film’s gross.
Sutherland refused, saying: “I just want the money. I don’t want any points in the movie.”
Imagine what Sutherland could have had, if only he’d thought of the future - 2% of the gross on what became an iconic comedy film. In today’s dollars, he would have made in excess of $14 million - and could have laughed all the way to the bank. Hearing the story in 2017, Donald Sutherland’s actions seem shortsighted and not well thought out.
In fact, Sutherland’s plight is more common than we think. He looked at the cash in hand as the safe option and didn’t consider possible scenarios. What if he had thought about it through a long-term lens – would his actions have been different? Why was he incapable of looking at the potential benefit to his future self?
In psychological terms, the focus on short-term financial gain is a disassociation of one’s present self from their future self. The future self is a stranger to our current selves. The person we will be 10, 20, or even 30 years in the future is someone we don’t know and we don’t feel the need to act for. This type of disassociation is quite common with human nature when it comes to financial decisions.
Think about it – how often do we read articles about 20-somethings who spend their excess cashflow on going out versus saving in their 401k – even when the data shows that saving early is key to retirement success? Or the family with the best cars, nicest clothes and great vacations, yet they have no cash or holdings on hand in the event of a catastrophic event?
Part of the disconnect from our future self is a function of brain chemistry. In a 2014 brain activity study conducted by New York University’s Stern School of Business, individuals had to think of their present self and their future self. Brain activity increases when thinking of one’s current self; but decreases when thinking of the future self. The study also found that people whose brain activity decreases the most, were least likely to focus on long term gain over small, immediate ones.
In The Thief of Time, Philosophical Essays on Procrastination, Professor Christine Tappolet used the analogy of dirty dishes in a sink – and whether to wash immediately or delay the washing up until later. Psychologically, the delay of washing the dishes is seen as creating a burden for our future self. According to Tappolet, putting things off for the future self despite the burden (in this case, dried on food more difficult to clean) indicates a lack of concern for the future self. Other psychologists might have a slightly different take – seeing it not as a lack of concern, but rather a lack of courage or will. Either way, it’s an inability to imagine the future.
So how does this affect our everyday life? Do we mirror Sutherland’s decision-making process when we’re handling finances? A relatively simple, straightforward way to guard against disassociation is to visualize one’s future self, thereby creating a connection so that this person is no longer a stranger. And if you layer on the financial life you want that future self to have, you may make decisions that can help you be successful in achieving your vision.
Perhaps we should go easier on Donald Sutherland. After all, in 1978, TV movie reruns weren’t really a thing, and VCR/DVD players weren’t on the horizon. Sutherland was the highest paid cast member on the film for two days of work (not bad!) and he didn’t think the movie would be a success, much less earn $120 million. Based on the data in front of him, he might have simply thought he was being kinder to his future self by taking the money. Just a word of advice… if you find yourself in a situation like that, try the visualization, but be sure to also run it by your tax attorney or your therapist!
“Donald Sutherland Reflects on The Long Run of Success, Looks to Snowy Future”, Jenelle Riley, Variety Magazine, November 4, 2014