The secret powers of time (animated)

January 2, 2011 | By | 4 Replies More

I’ve previously posted on Philip Zimbardo’s excellent discussion regarding the “Secret Powers of Time.” He has convinced me that one’s perception of time (or even a nation’s overall perception of time) affects one’s character (or the nation’s character) in profound ways. It certainly affects the pace of life.

Tonight, I stumbled upon a ten-minute cleverly animated version of Zimbardo’s presentation. Citing the work of Robert Levine, Zimbardo indicates that you can identify countries and cities by their pace of life. In those places with the highest pace of life, “men have the most coronary problems.” He proposes that the basic purpose of schools is to take present-oriented children (which he defines as our natural state – see 5:30 of the talk) and attempt to turn them into future-oriented children. In American, a child drops out of school every 9 seconds, and it’s often a boy and a minority student. Here’s the context. By the time a boy is 21 years old, he has spent 10,000 hours playing video games, and many more hours watching shows, including pornography, which they tend to do alone. This means that many hours are not being spent developing social skills.  These children thus  live in a world they create. Bottom line is that they will never fit into a traditional classroom, which is analogue–it is incredibly boring to them. The commonly-heard cure for our educational ills–that we need more classroom time reading, writing and arithmetic is thus a recipe for disaster for these present-oriented students. Traditional classrooms offer the lack of control and delay of gratification; this is not at all interesting compared to life in front of a video screen.

Image by Stillfx at (with permission)

Zimbardo argues that we are “under-estimating the power of technology in re-wiring young people’s brains.” They get upset even waiting an extra minute or two booting up their computers or downloading files. We bark at our kids to avoid hedonistic addictive activities, but they are already aware of the consequences, but they are not future-oriented kids, so there is no feedback loop to alter their behavior.

Bottom line: Many of the disputes we have with other people are due to our differences in the perception of time.


Category: Culture, Education, Psychology Cognition, Quality of Life

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.

Comments (4)

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  1. Rick Massey says:

    "Traditional classrooms offer the lack of control and delay of gratification; this is not at all interesting compared to life in front of a video screen."

    I think this article nails it regarding the problem with education. Kids are growing up by themselves. If people go to the movies as a family, they split up and go into seperate rooms at the theater. So many families don't have dinner together anymore. They split up and go into seperate rooms to watch tv. Then it's back to the video games.

    Being all to yourself, living on instant gratification, and isolating your virtual world from the one with cause and effect relationships are devestating to things such as education that prepare you for the future.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    USA today’s offer’s this summary of The Time Paradox:

    “People who enjoy the most well-being choose to focus on positive experiences in their past or opt for the most favorable interpretation of a difficult past; enjoy plenty of fun in the present without excessive indulgence as they keep a reasonably careful fix on the future; and they don’t dwell on past miseries or see what happens to them in the present as “fixed” by fate. Whatever your attitude toward time, though, it can be changed, Zimbardo emphasizes.”

    Here is a more in depth version of Zimbardo’s lecture on time.

    Here is Zimbardo’s website regarding “The Time Paradox.”

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Here are my notes from Zimbardo’s video (see the above comment).

    Life is full of temptation and it is all about whether we are present-focused or future-focused. Min. 2

    Those who delay gratification (e.g., the marshmallow experiment) are “future-oriented.” Min 10.

    You need to recognize your own attitude toward time, in order to be happy.

    We unconsciously divide our experience into time zones. Your time perspective is “a foundation for understanding many human constructs. Most of us don’t have a balanced perspective of past, present & future.

    Achievement needs, causal thinking, hope (these don’t exist unless you have a future orientation).

    Guilt, revenge (based on the past)

    Impulsivity, improvisation (present) Min 12.

    Our time perspective determines whether we have “safe sex or no sex, or whether we have one more drink before driving home.” 12:40.

    Present oriented people focus one what is in front of them and what other people are thinking about them right now. The past and future don’t exist for them.

    Past-oriented are focused on the past.

    Future-oriented. “If I do it, what do I gain or lose?”

    We all actually have some of all of these.

    Test yourself at

    If your past is in a quarrel with your present, the cost will be your future. (Churchill)

    Most successful people are future-oriented. We know that it pays to work hard in the present because it pays in the future. Min 15

    The closer you are to the equator, the more present-oriented you are (because there are no seasons). Protestants (i.e. because of work ethic) have higher GNP. Catholics tend to be past or present oriented. Middle class = future oriented. Lower class are past or present oriented.

    Japanese kids are in a revolution. Min 17. They want to be more present-oriented. Italy study. Min 18.

    How time-perspective changes students. Min 22. Dramatic differences. Future-orientation lives 2 years longer and is more successful.

    Past-negative – at risk for depression and anxiety. Min 24.

    Who solves mazes better? Future oriented do the best. Min 25

    Who smokes, drinks, drugs? Present-oriented, regardless of whether you are a man or woman. Low on future orientation. All addictions are addictions of the present time perspective.

    Benefits of each time perspective: Min 28

    Past-positive – happy, self-esteem, rituals, patriotism, nostalgia, gratitude, stability, wisdom, identity.

    Present positive – Affiliation, joy, pleasure, sensuality, sexuality, energy, activity, excitement, improvisation.

    Future: Achievement, health focus, contingency-planning, probability-thinking, self-efficacy, cost-benefit analyses, expectancies, hope.

    Negative chart: (29)

    Past negative: Trauma, guilt, depression, retaliation, revenge.
    Present fatalism: Addiction, risky acts, violence, anger, gambler’s luck
    Future: Anxiety, worry, social isolation, competitiveness, male impotence.

    Optimal mix: Positive past connects you to your roots. Connects you to your identity and family. Grounds you.
    Future gives you wings – to soar to new destination and challenges
    Present give you energy to explore people, places, self & sensuality.

    The best mix: High on past-positive, moderately high on future and a dash of present-hedonism. Low on past- negative and low on present fatalism. Work to reduce theses last two.

    See for more info (Amsterdam student).

    A student (usually a boy and more often a minority) drops out of school in the U.S. every 9 seconds. By the time a boy is 21, 10,000 hours playing video games and more than 10,000 watching pornography. Ergo, they haven’t learned social skills. Their brains are being digitally rewired—they are addicted. They are bored by traditional classrooms. Going back to reading, writing in the classroom will be a disaster. They live for excitement in the present, and traditional classrooms are about delay of gratification. (min 32).

    Present oriented kids know the consequences, but this never feeds back.

    Only future-oriented people worry about conservation of the planet. Min 34.

    Only future-oriented people see the future as success. Others look to the present for “success.”

    Communism has left us with many people who have no hope, who don’t believe that they can change things for the better.

    Be aware: Time is what matters. It’s not whether someone is dumb or stupid or selfish . . . this is a simple idea.

    Most Americans say that they are sacrificing friends, family and sleep for the future, and that they are busier than ever. Min 39 If they had an 8th day every week, they’d spend it working harder, not with friends, family or sleeping.

    20 years ago, only 60% of Americans have sit-down family dinners. Now it’s one out of five Americans. Min 40.

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