The Secret Powers of Time

In a lecture on how individuals view time, the famous social psychologist Philip Zimbardo pointed out that there are six main time zones in which people experience the world.  Two focus on the past, two on the present, and two on the future. To be future-oriented, there needs to be a belief that what is being planned will eventually work out. Future-oriented individuals look ahead, putting immediate pleasure and ease on hold for something better still to come.

No doubt, there are cultural differences inherent to our view of time.  Additionally, individual differences and developmental factors also account for the diversity of perspectives. There will always be a diversity of perspectives in terms of how time is viewed. Currently, however, the United States may be experiencing a significant generational change in our relationship with time.  Zimbardo suggests that kids today are quite different, in their time orientation, relative to their parents and previous generations. Their brains have been rewired by technology, video games, and related mediums to look for instant gratification, becoming deeply rooted in present-orientation and hedonism. To the extent that living in the now can be unhealthy, today’s kids are at special risk.  Zimbardo believes teens are becoming less and less able to see the consequences of their actions. Short-sightedness has always been a characteristic of youth, but perhaps the digital age is making this situation worse.

Technology can also play a redemptive role. For example, ecological momentary assessment (EMA) and intervention (EMI) have the capability to help individuals reach a better future. EMA/EMI refers to a set of strategies, methods and tools for fostering understanding and change in real-time in the context of daily life. Mobile technology is advancing EMA/EMI approaches, with the potential to help users develop awareness,  motivation, positive habits, and future-orientation.

When we understand that others simply have a different way of viewing time, and thus a different way of viewing the world, we can begin to work toward a better future. Being past- or present-oriented is not inherently a bad thing.  In fact, it can help balance out those who are so future-oriented that they fail to learn from the past or fully experience the present. It’s more a matter of both-and (all) rather than either-or.  So, in order to make the most of the present and prepare for the future, it is important to understand where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going. EMA/EMI can help us find our way.

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