The Differences Between Being Past, Present, and Future-Oriented According to Philip Zimbardo

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Future oriented
In a talk he gave a few years ago, renowned psychologist Professor Philip Zimbardo explains how our individual perspectives of time affect our work, health and well-being. We have different relationships with time, says Zimbardo:

what we have discovered in 30 years of research there are six main time ones that people live in; two focused on the past; two on the present and two on the future.

The people who focus on the past either remember all the good old times, successes, happy birthdays, nostalgia, these are the people who keep the family records, the family books, who preserve the family rituals. There are other people who focus only on regret, only on failure, only on all the things that went wrong. So we call those focus past positive, or past negative.

There are two ways to be present oriented, the most obvious is to be hedonistic, that you live for pleasure and you avoid pain. You seek knowledge, you seek sensation. There are other people who are present oriented because they say, “It doesn’t pay to plan. My life is fated – fated by my religion, my poverty, the conditions that I’m living under.”

Most of us are here because we are future oriented, that we have learnt to work rather than play, to resist temptation. But there’s another way to be future oriented, depending on your religion life begins after the death of the mortal body. To be future oriented you have to trust that when you make a decision about the future it’s going to be carried out. If you have great inflation you don’t put money in the bank because you can’t trust the future. If you have instability in your family adults can’t keep their promises to you.

In A Geography Of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist, Robert Levine illustrates the symbiotic relationship between person and people and place or places in which they live. Specifically, he shows how people have different rhythms in locations around the world.

Through experiments, Levine looks at time perspective, at how people divide their own experience into partitions, time zones. On the speed of life, or tempo Levine asks the question, “what characteristics of places and cultures make them faster or slower?” The two elements for consideration are “economic well-being” and “degree of industrialization.”

Our treatment of time depends on culture, perception, and state of mind. With that in mind, Zimbardo did:

a recent study with USA Today asking Americans how busy they are. The vast majority of Americans, more than 50% said, “I’m busier now than I was last year. I was busier last year than the previous year and I sacrificed friends, family and sleep for my success.” This is across the board, not separating by future orientation.

And then we said, “Suppose you had an eight day week what would you do?” They say, “Oh that would be great.” They would spend most of that time working harder, achieving more, not with friends, not with family and not even sleeping.

Reorienting how we think about what happens to us is helpful. He says:

many of life’s puzzles can be solved by simply understanding our own time perspective and that of others. Lots of conflict we have with people is really a conflict in the different time perspectives.

Once you’re aware of that you stop making negative attributions like, you’re dumb or you’re childish or you’re pig-headed or you’re authoritarian. It’s really the most simple idea in the world.

Watch the video of the talk below.


Conversation Agent – Valeria Maltoni

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