Time Perspectives of Philip Zimbardo

One of the great advantages of working at Google is that famous people want to come visit. That’s how I got to see Ferran Adria a few weeks ago. Yesterday, it was John Hodgman and Jonathan Coulton. Later this week is Chip Kidd. You get the point. But what’s even nicer is that they record all the talks and post them to their own channel on YouTube, so even if you don’t work at Google, you can see the talks. Or, in my case, if you are too lazy to get over to the room at the right time, you can catch up later.

Last weekend, I was catching up on a couple such talks that I had meant to see but missed for one reason or another (including Nancy Pelosi’s visit), and the one by Philip Zimbardo caught my eye. Zimbardo is infamous for the Stanford Prison Experiment where he simulated a prison with Stanford students and was aghast at how quickly the prison became real to all involved. Within a day, the guards were finding ways to humiliate the prisoners and previously healthy “prisoners” were having mental breakdowns (the images from the experiment were eerily echoed by Abu Ghraib). I’m currently reading Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect, where he discusses the idea that evil is not a dispositional but situational; in other words, people who do bad things are not inherently evil, but instead all of us have the potential to do evil in the right situation (as his Stanford students demonstrated in their “prison”).

His latest book is called The Time Paradox, about the psychology of time, and he came by Google to give a talk on the subject. He started the talk with a discussion of the marshmallow experiment. The subjects were four-year-olds who were given a choice – they were given a marshmallow, but if they could wait a few minutes before eating it, they would be given two marshmallows for their patience. Some of them ate the marshmallow, some of them managed to hold out and wait for the greater reward. Here’s the astounding result: the experimenters returned to their subjects fourteen years later and found that the ones that had the self-control to wait had better grades and better SAT scores by a statistically significant margin. In other words, one brief experiment on a four-year-old was highly correlated with their future performance in life. So what’s going on?

Zimbardo identifies the two types of children as having different time perspectives: the ones that ate the marshmallow have a present time perspective, focusing on the immediate gratification of the marshmallow. The ones who waited have a future time perspective, able to trade off their present gratification for future results. And our culture rewards those who can make those future tradeoffs (e.g. study now rather than play to enhance one’s college test scores).

Zimbardo later extended the classifications of time perspectives to include past-positive (focusing on the good things that have happened in the past), past-negative (focusing on the bad things), and present-fatalistic (feeling unable to influence the events impacting one’s life). You can find out your time perspective tendencies by taking the online test. Zimbardo has done survey work to show that the results of the marshmallow experiment are not isolated – the time perspective of a person is strongly correlated with the results that person achieves in many areas of life.

What I like about this is that it feels right to me as an explanatory mechanism. There are certain areas where I am heavily future-weighted, such as financial planning where I will forgo something I want today for the sake of something I am saving to buy next year. There are other areas where I am past-weighted, such as in my social identity where some part of me still clings to my self-identity from when I was a teenager. There are still other areas where I am present-weighted, with a focus on whatever feels right at the moment (which contributes to my inability to maintain a regular exercise program). I was also able to immediately start classifying other people around me into the various categories.

The sign to me of a powerful classification system is when it breaks open a problem where everything seemed ambiguous before. Back when I was a programmer, I used to love that feeling when I finally hit upon the right way to represent the data and everything suddenly became easy. And I’d been feeling muddled about certain people recently where I just didn’t understand why they behaved the way they did. But when Zimbardo gave me this new template for thinking about how people think, their behaviors immediately fell into place.

The other nice part about Zimbardo’s use of time perspectives is that they are not fixed. A future perspective can be taught. So we could test four-year-olds, identify the ones that have a present perspective and give them the tools to develop a future perspective, thus improving their ability to adapt to adult life where future tradeoffs are always necessary. Zimbardo trashes the idea that success is genetically determined, instead focusing on the idea that the tools for success can be taught with the right system – not surprising from the man who identified that evil is present in all of us in the wrong system.

I recommend watching Zimbardo’s talk if this sounds interesting, as he explains it better and more rigorously than I do. But I wanted to share this idea that had immediate impact on me. I’m curious if others have the same feeling – maybe this is just obvious to others, or maybe it’s a helpful template for thinking about the world. What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Time Perspectives of Philip Zimbardo

  1. I have a theory of time and how it relates to the three main elements of human beings’ developmental processes – physical, intellectual, and emotional. Using the stages of development that Maslow and other researchers have discovered as a basis, it seems that the things that have happened to us in the past primarily define our physical stage of development, the things that are happening in the present primarily define our emotional stage, and the things we imagine will happen to us in the future define our intellectual stage. So, if you perceive your past in a positive light, you’ll see yourself as being physically well developed, if you see your present situation in a positive light, you’ll feel emotionally well off, and if you imagine your future in a positive light, you’ll get the impression that you are extra clever. 🙂

    There’s a lot more to the theory, but that’s one of the shorter versions of one of my many “stories” of what I’ve found to be a some really powerful classification system.

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