Friday, November 12, 2010

Do you live in the past, the present or the future?

Present-orientation: the problem of temptation

As psychologist Philip Zimbardo points out, when making a decision, we have three cognitive options. Firstly, we can focus on the past, attending to our memories. Secondly, we can attend to the present, responding to the stimulus of the immediate situation. Thirdly, we can attend to the future, and think about the anticipated consequences.

In the ‘marshmallow experiment’, a study by Walter Mischel, pre-school children (about 4 years old) were offered a dilemma: one treat now, or two treats later. Some children waited for two treats later; whilst others didn’t wait, and took the treat now. Mischel interviewed these 4-year-olds much later, when they were 18. He found that the children who had resisted temptation did better at exams, did better under pressure, and were more confident; whilst those who did not defer gratification were more moody, indecisive and prone to jealousy and envy.

This kind of behaviour is not just something we are born with. Zimbardo argues that outside influences - such as culture, social class, and education - affect such time-related behaviour.

Past, present and future-oriented behaviour

Some people live in the past - for some this is a happy place, and they will value the continuity that memory brings. But for some (e.g. the depressed) memories are negative, and living in the past is a kind of constant repetition of the same negative experiences. People who live in the past can be loyal with a strong sense of identity, but can be change-resistant.

For some the present is for the impulsive gathering of immediate pleasure – the classic person who lives in this way is the hedonist who does not think about consequences. Manifestations may include the party person always surrounded by their friends, or (Zimbardo argues) the gambler who loses their sense of time in a casino without clocks or windows. Present-oriented people tend to seek novelty and immediate stimulation, but have less consistency and self-control, and can be prone to addictions.

For some, the future is so important that they will do tomorrow’s work before they take today’s pleasure – they will defer immediate pleasure for future goals. Future-oriented people tend to be very conscientious and better able to control themselves, but can be overly performance-focused, anxious and socially isolated.


Present-oriented people do not take into account the risks involved in present action. Extreme cases don’t imagine getting caught out in the future for anything they do now. In practice, then, extreme present-orientation is less likely to be sustainable.

In contrast, future-oriented people are more likely to respond to environmental programmes, more likely to save money for the future, less likely to fall prone to addiction – in short, more likely to show many behaviours considered desirable for sustainability of the person or the environment. Statistically, for instance, conscientious people live longer (Kern and Friedman, 2008).

Changing behaviour

Is it possible to generate future-oriented action in present-oriented people? Zimbardo suggests education can help, but only education that engages constructively with present-orientation. With regard to influencing individuals, another psychologist, John Boyd, points out a technique often used by sports psychologists: ‘mental simulation’, where people are led to imagine achieving a near-future goal, and then encouraged to achieve it… and then the time-lag is increased. This seems to be a technique that can cause progressively better planning ability, and deferral of immediate pleasure, in individuals.

But, Zimbardo argues, we must remember that all views are important, and a balance is good: the past view gives you roots, the future view gives you wings to improve your environment, and a present-orientation gives you energy to enjoy, and be creative with, what you have.

To view the full lecture that prompted this article, go to:

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