Save for retirement, your future (wrinkly) self says

March 29, 2011 at 5:52 PM ET

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Picture what you'll look like 30 years from now. Unnerving, isn't it?

Researchers at Stanford University are using high-tech tools to harness this natural aversion to aging with a noble goal: jolt Americans into gaining a new sense of urgency about retirement savings.

The project uses computer software to morph subjects' photos into aged avatars (think bald, gray, wrinkly and saggy) in an attempt to close the gap between the present self and the future self —without turning young adults into misers, the Wall Street Journal's Jason Zweig reports. By enabling people to see what they will be when they are old, the virtual-reality technology can supposedly transform the natural urge to spend for today into a willingness to save for the future.

Skeptical? The research seems to be on to something: Young people who saw their aged avatars said they would save twice as much as those who didn't, one experiment found. In another, students viewed avatars of themselves that smiled when they saved more and frowned when they saved less. Those with morphed avatars said they would save 30 percent more than those with unchanged avatars.

If you're having difficulty mustering the willpower to save, and you don't feel the need to see your face with more wrinkles, consider these sobering facts from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College: 51 percent of households are at risk of not having enough to maintain their living standards in retirement. That's up from 43 percent in 2004. If you account for health-care costs, the at-risk percentage jumps to 61 percent.

We don't know about you, but that's a little more scary than some extra wrinkles.