Understanding Time Orientation

Open Culture had a post yesterday on the Secret Powers of Time (vid below), which is a great animation by CognitiveMedia that is based off of a RSA presentation by Philip Zimbardo.

The premise of the presentation is that our attitudes on time shape how we both view and interact in the world. The video can describe this in better detail than I can, but the idea is intriguing. Two other points of research is the Marshmallow Experiment – in which 4 year old children are offered the reward of ONE marshmallow to eat now, but if they waited they could have TWO marshmallows within the immediate future.

From this experiment, children fell into one of two time orientations:

  • Present orientation: Live for the now and have a hard time controlling their urges
  • Future orientation: Able to make sacrifices in the ‘now’ for a future goal

It was interesting to see that how you orient time effects on how you perceive things. The children in the study were followed up when they were 18 to see if their orientations had an effect on their success. The students with future orientation had higher test scores, were more self confident, and worked well under pressure. The students with present orientation were moody, indecisive and envious. With a society that expects instant gratification, this concept helps to explain why a lot of people are miserable and make bad decisions based on short term gains.

Zimbardo references a book by Robert Levine called ‘A Geography of Time‘, which I read a bit of on Google Books. The book starts out with a personal story of what Levine faced when he was teaching in Brazil. He thought he had plenty of time to make it to his 10 o’clock class, but he passed a clock that said it was 10:20. Panicking, he ran to the classroom only to find it empty. He asked someone passing by for the time and they said 9:45. That couldn’t be right, so he asked another person and they said 9:43, and then the clock in a nearby office said 3:15. Time is regarded differently in Brazil, and he realized this even more so when most students arrived 30-60 minutes late to his lecture, with some even arriving later than that. And unlike in the US, where students start packing their bags before the end of the lecture, the students decided to hang around afterwards, up to 30 minutes.

It was interesting to reflect on my experiences living abroad and the people from different cultures that I’ve met, and to frame my interactions within this ‘time paradox’. Some of my colleagues found it humorous that I would call if I was running a few minutes late to a meeting, while others weren’t embarrassed to show up 30 minutes late. Even within a culture, like the US, it is useful – because it helps you to understand why people act a certain way. We know people who are living in the past, but now we can understand why, and how to help them see the present and future. This could be a great tool for understanding colleagues, and to personally get yourself into a better frame.

I decided to take Zimbardo’s survey to see where I am. Below is a percentile chart for each perspective, with the ‘Ideal Time Perspective’ in red, and my results in blue.

I didn’t like how a lot of the questions were phrased, but I think it was done to make it less complex and to hit on baser reactions. The whole transcendental part is null in my opinion since it was based too much on religious type questions. I think it would be better if they had something that asked about connection with nature, empathy, seeing inner beauty, etc… Overall though, I think its worth doing. Where do you fall?


One thought on “Understanding Time Orientation

  1. Pingback: How to solve life’s puzzles? Understand your time perspective! « In dubio

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