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How time perspective impacts our behaviour

Yesterday, I finished reading the The Time Paradox from Philip G. Zimbardo and John Boyd, which promised to bring into light how we adopt different time perspectives and how, in turn they influence our behavior. The interesting bit that made me blog about the book and Prof. Zimbardo’s theory of time perspective is that right before I started reading The Time Paradox I have read two books about personality development from Judith Rich HarrisThe Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike.

I’ll write more about Harris’s books and her influence on my thinking in a future post, but it suffices to say that she laid out some clear rules what a good scientific experiment involving human psychology and personality traits should follow if any causal links to be discovered. Harris made me take a critical approach and look at any new books or articles coming up with theories in those areas with a new analytical eye.

I’ve already had clear understanding that correlation — e.g. expensive sports cars usually belong to rich and famous people — doesn’t imply causality — buying an expensive sports car will make you rich and famous. Too bad the credit fiasco in 2008 makes it harder to loan money, otherwise I could practically try if the causality is true;-) What Harris clearly defined and what I knew already from the field of Performance & Reliability testing for software apps but couldn’t map to an area like psychology, is that causality is testable by pinning down (or randomizing along the sample tested) as many factors that could influence the measurements as possible and then vary one of the factors implicated in the correlation to see how the other behaves. For example, in P&R testing one would push the CPU at constant high load – as close to 100% as possible, and then set on to measure the memory consumption as a function of e.g. number of user requests. This way any correlation between the number of user requests and memory consumption of also imply direct causality.

In psychology, this implies that one has to take great precaution to remove or at least reduce as much as possible factors like heredity, socio-economic status, cultural background, and similar, and only then draw conclusions of the type “people who adopt a present-hedonistic perspective are more likely to be risky drivers”. And this is where, in my opinion Zimbardo and Boyd have failed with their theory. While much of the things they say about the personality characteristics of the people with a particular time perspective sound reasonable, there is no evidence beyond vague contemplation what makes people adopt a particular time perspective. What striked me as most puzzling is that the authors seem to be convinced that there is no genetic factor (or if there is, it’s insignificant) and the time perspectives that people have is entirely a learned behavior, thus one can unlearn it and with hard work and discipline shift from one perspective to another. I expected a lot more from the Stanford University professor who became (in)famous for his Stanford Prison Experiment!

Nonetheless, I would still recommend the book as an interesting reflection on ones understanding of time and how certain behavior can be correlated to the perspective that people hold. My results from taking the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory seem relatively well-balanced (see table below), so I guess I have no need to worry about changing them, but I am not convinced that if yours are not the book and the authors’ suggestions would really help 😦 I’d be curios to check a new edition 10 years from now, though, if the authors follow-up and confirm that the genes are truly bystanders in this case. Unfortunately it sounds like a Marxists utopia taken to another level where one is not only shaped by the society but also have full control to change his/her character at will. In the meantime I’ll trust my genes don’t work on some kind of conspiracy plan to turn me soon into another personality with a different ZTPI score. Not that it matters if they do, my brain will surely come up with a “logical” explanation for the change and I’ll blissfully accept it 😉


My ZTPI score — apparently I live in multiple time zones 😉

Past-negative 2.20
Past-positive 3.56
Present-hedonistic 3.80
Present-fatalistic 1.44
Future 3.85

How an ideal score looks like according to Zimbardo:

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