Philip George Zimbardo is a psychologist and a professor emeritus at Stanford University. He specializes in researching “Time perspective”. It is the study of how individuals divide the flow of human experience into different time frames or time zones (referring to the past, present, and future). This usually occurs automatically and unconsciously but it varies between cultures, nations, individuals, educational levels, social classes. Zimbardo says that they also become biased by (learned) overuse of some frames and the underuse of others.
What are the factors that you consider when you make a decision? Some people only consider factors in the immediate situation. Zimbardo calls these people “present-oriented”. For other people, the present is less important. They might ask themselves – how did this experience feel in the past or how does it compare to something similar in the past? These people are past-oriented. The third group is people that are only focused on the future and they are concerned with the future consequences of what they are doing now. They essentially do a cost-benefit analysis.
Zimbardo says that these three groups can each be broken down into two subcategories. Past oriented people can focus on past positives or past negatives. Present oriented people could be hedonistic (focused on pleasure) or focused on fatalism (taking the view that nothing matters because your life is controlled). Future-oriented people can be goal-oriented or they can be transcendental (concerned with how their actions will impact their life after death).
He suggests that the “optimal temporal mix” is developing the mental flexibility to shift time perspectives fluidly. This means adjusting one’s focus on the past present or future depending on the demands of the situation.
So what is the optimal time profile? According to Zimbardo, it is high on past positive, moderately high on the future, moderate on present hedonism, and always low on past negative and present fatalism. So the optimal temporal mix is past positive because it gives you your roots and an ability to connect to your identity and family in order to be grounded. The future gives you wings to soar to new destinations and challenges. Present hedonism gives you the energy to explore people, places, self, and sensuality.
What do future-oriented people sacrifice for success? Zimbardo says that they sacrifice family time, friend time, fun time, personal indulgences, hobbies, sleep, they leave for work, achievement, and control.
The reason for citing the research by Zimbardo is to make the critical point that we each utilize segments of time in different ways to construct our reality and make decisions. We all use slices of time from the past, present, and future in different ways to construct our present and they combine to become our reality. If our interpretation of the dominant slices of past, present, and future is wrong then our reality is wrong. Our interpretation of the dominant slices can never be perfect therefore we all live with an incorrect grasp of reality (to varying extents). When dealing with others we all need to accept that our individual reality is, not just different but deficient, and act accordingly.
Next article in this series: “Slowing Down Time“