How our time-orientation effects the way we live our lives

December 21, 2008 | By | Reply More

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo asks the following question:

What if your attitudes toward time could explain why you are chronically late, why you’re likely to fight for rainforest preservation, or why you might be predisposed to addictions?

Zimbardo has written a new book explaining the psychology of time. In his opinion, the secret power of time is not about “clock time,” but rather about subjective time. His analysis has numerous real-world consequences. For instance, he takes on many addiction recovery programs such as D.A.R.E., accusing them of “useless propaganda. The problem is that these programs “only work for future-oriented people,” whereas addicts are “present-oriented.” addiction prevention programs all too often fail to recognize that the audience is not helped by lectures about future consequences. The real problem is that societal forces trap and tempt these present-oriented people, and they need lots of role-playing to deal with the problem at a point where it matters.

If Zimbardo’s name sounds familiar, it might be because of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment he conducted in 1971.

People divide the flow of human experience in various ways, and it affects the way they live their lives. For instance, time-orientation affects our decisions to give in to temptation or to delay gratification. Many people live in the present, and they focus on the here and now. Alternatively, other people are oriented to the past, and they bring the past to their present, in both helpful and unhelpful ways. Future-oriented people constantly weigh the costs versus benefits–in short, they obsess about anticipating the consequences of their actions.

We each have a specific time orientation profile. If you want to determine your time profile, take two short surveys offered by Zimbardo and compare yourself to the model profile he proposes.

Zimbardo’s book is called The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life. You can read a book, or you can jump fairly deeply into this topic by watching Zimbardo’s hour-long lecture at Fora TV.  You can also visit Zimbardo’s website.

The story starts out with an experiment in which the psychologists tempted preschoolers with a marshmallow. These four-year olds had the option of eating one marshmallow immediately, or they could try to hold off for several minutes and thus earn two marshmallows. The four-year-olds divided themselves into those who could wait and those who couldn’t. Fourteen years later, the psychologist went back to interview the 18-year-olds, and they found out some startling things. Those four-year-olds who exerted the willpower to wait for two marshmallows scored an average of 250 points higher on the SAT than those who couldn’t wait. Those who could wait also show themselves to be more cooperative, more able to work under pressure and more self-reliant.  This short video summarizes that dramatic experiment.

In the Time Paradox, one of Zimbardo’s main points is that our own relationship with time was a big role in our personal happiness. He offers experimental evidence plus quite a bit of advice to “make time work for you.”

How do we become oriented toward time the way we do? It’s a complicated question, but certain things are becoming clearer. Our culture plays a big role. Climate also correlates, with those living closer to the equator tending to be more present-oriented. Religion plays a role too, with Protestants being more future-oriented than non-Protestants. Those who live in environments that change tend to be more future-oriented (although those who live in unstable environments don’t, become future oriented because they are not able to develop a sense of trust). Middle-class folks tend to be more future-oriented while lower-class folks tend to be more present-oriented. Women tend to be more future-oriented than men. Older people tend to be more present oriented, because “the future is death.”

Zimbardo has a lot to say about various societal ills during his lecture. The topics include the effort by many schools to crush present-oriented desires in order to turn the students into well-behaved future-oriented people. This is done in many ways, including the use of stories such as The Three Pigs when students are young and impressionable.  Schools tend to push future perspectives, stressing probability and causality. This can amount to a mismatch of “time zones” when the students are from economically blighted neighborhoods; these students tend to be present-oriented. These students often struggle, but it’s not that they aren’t intelligent. He therefore suggests that his approach has much to offer to schools that are trying to work with low income families.  Zimbardo recommends that students be tested for their time orientation to facilitate their learning.

Zimbardo has explored characteristics that correlate to each of these time orientations, and he has found that the extent of these correlations is often a staggering .70 (typically, psychological correlations will amount to .20 or .30). If you proceed to take the time orientation test offered by Zimbardo, you might find that it has a bit more to say about you than you are comfortable hearing. For instance, I was off the charts as a future-oriented person, and his findings sounded stunningly autobiographical to me.

Future-oriented people tend to be extremely aware of cost-benefit analyses. They are conscientious, ego-controlled and consistent, with lots of energy and control of their impulses. They tend to live longer, perhaps because they practice preventative medicine and they avoid risky sensations and behaviors. On the other hand, they tend to be anxiety-ridden, socially isolated and full of performance concerns. These are people who succeed quite often, but at a big price. When present-oriented students are pitted against future-oriented students, it is the latter that don’t jump right into the maze, but rather look and consider possible outcomes before starting. This results in a much higher rate of solving mazes for future-oriented subjects.

Past-positive people tend to be happy, friendly and full of self-esteem. They have LOTS of friends.  Having this orientation also gives them a sense of “tradition and continuity.”

Present hedonic folks tend to be novelty seekers and sensation seekers. They tend to be high in aggression, but also creativity and novelty. They are low on ego control. Therefore, these are the people who have trouble with many types of addictions.  They have remained like toddlers, who are inherently present-hedonists. These people don’t wear wrist watches. They believe in luck.

Present-fatalistic people tend to be aggressive, anxiety ridden and depressed. They have low self-esteem, low energy and low emotional stability. They are not conscientious and they show no concern for the future. Past-negative people are also high in anxiety, depression and aggression, as well is low in self-esteem, impulse control and happiness. Zimbardo comments that these are the “profiles of shooters.”

An interesting tidbit is that men have long been perceived to be more willing to engage in risky behavior than women. Zimbardo explains, however, that most of this difference can be explained by reference to time orientation rather than gender. Women simply tend to be more future-oriented than men. When time orientation is controlled, women engage in risky behavior to the same extent as men.

Each type of time orientation provides value to society. Orientation to the past gives you “roots to connect to your identity and to your family.” Orientation to future “gives you wings to soar to new destinations.” Orientation to present gives you the energy to explore people, places and yourself, as well is your sensuality.  A good balance of time-orientation is what’s most important.

Zimbardo concludes that we currently have a massive problem with time crunch in America. We have no time for much of anything other than work. It was bad 20 years ago and it’s even much worse now. We deal with our lack of time by suppressing our orientations to the past and the present. We ignore our friends, family and hobbies. We compensate by trying to buy lots of time-saving gadgets. 57% of people indicated that they sacrificed sleep in order to get through the day. In fact, if they were offered more time off, most people said that they would use it “to get more work done.”  The best predictor of individual wealth is the “extent of complaints by family of not being available to them, of not being there for them.” On the other hand, interviews with those who had successful careers indicate that they see their lives as empty and meaningless, despite their material successes.

In addition to depriving ourselves of connection to family, friends and fun, our time crunches push us into extremely risky behavior. For instance, in 2002 only 1/50 of loans were subprime loans. In 2008, that shot up to one third of all loans. Zimbardo describes this as a “commons dilemma” where resources are limited. At such times, we desperately need future-oriented regulation to get us through.

He concludes by suggesting that understanding our own time-orientation can help us understand ourselves and others. It helps us understand our conflicts with our mates and the way we deal with our world, or fail to deal with it. It’s not easy to change our time orientation, but it can be done.

Our time-orientation can be changed, because (in Zimbardo’s opinion) time orientation is learned, not inherited. There’s only one exception to this: when we were very young, we are all present-hedonistic-oriented, and only some of us grow out of that.  The trick, in his opinion, is to be aware of that orientation in the first place.


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Category: Culture, Health, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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