TIME PERSPECTIVE BIASES: GENERAL, PHENOMENOLOGICAL
CHARACTERIZATIONS OF EACH TIME PERSPECTIVE

By Phil Zimbardo

Although individual differences in time perspective are continuous along each of the dimensions specified by factor analyses, as are the combinations of factor scores an individual gets on each of the temporal dimensions that comprise the time perspective inventory, extreme “types” may be selected for research and didactic purposes. They are typically identified by selecting respondents who are above the group median on one time dimension and below the median on all others. With larger samples, it is possible to select percentile cutoffs for assigning respondents to different categories. We have always done within- sample relative comparisons rather than using standardized norms against which to select individuals for categorical assignment. When we have a larger population base to draw from, we expect to establish standardized scores for use with different local samples.

The time perspective biases, or time frames, that emerge most consistently from our factor analysis of the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory are: Future-Orientation, Past-Orientation, Present-Hedonistic Orientation, and Present-Fatalistic Orientation. There may be sub- distinctions within the Future category, such as subjects who focus on planning and persevering toward longer-term goals; or on a shorter-term future in which meeting deadlines is most important. But for most purposes, those categories are combined within the general Future- Orientation. However, to test more specific hypotheses, investigators may give subjects separate scores on each of the future factors and assign them to different treatments or analyze the data according to subtypes within the Future-Orientation.

With some samples, a separate factor emerges which I characterize as Time Press, a sense of time urgency in which the respondent endorses as self-relevant a set of inventory statements of the pressures and constraints that time imposes on him or her. Part of this dimension also includes emotional aspects that are time-bound, such as, getting angry at others when kept waiting. Time Press correlates positively and highly with Future-Orientation and negatively with Present-Orientation.

The following general characterization of Time Perspective Types is loosely derived from interviews, case studies, correlational analysis of time perspective scores and other data, and experimental evidence. It is intended to serve only as a working heuristic to help investigators form a sense of the kind of person that is prototypical of each category. In my analysis, each type of time bias involves trade-offs, gains against Losses, and must be considered in the social environmental context in which the individual is functioning at any given period in her c life. The fit between environmental/structural/system demands and the person’s time perspective must be taken into account, so that the optimal time perspective bias in one s may be sub-optimal in others.

Central to my perspective on differences in time perspective is the consideration of the most relevant factors that influence a person’s decisions and actions at a given time.

Present-Oriented Person: This person focuses on concrete factors in the immediate, sensory present (physical salience, sensory qualities, current social pressures) while ignoring or minimizing the abstract qualities relevant to the decision that exist only in an anticipated future context or a remembered past context. Such people tend to be narrowly focused on what is rather than what might be, or used to be. Their thinking is more concrete, less abstract ( a bird in the hand is worth at least two in an uncertain bush), they use more present-tense verbs and references to events and things in the present. It is difficult for them to delay gratification, especially when it is salient and pressing. They give in easily to temptation, can be distracted from task performance by a host of physical and social stimuli. Their focus is less on instrumental activities designed to achieve future goals than it is on consummatory activities that bring pleasure or avoid immediate pain. Of great importance is the evidence we are accumulating that they tend not to be influenced by educational or persuasive messages, either written or oral, in which the necessary action to take or refrain from taking is in some future context. Having the relevant knowledge does not translate into the appropriate action, as it does for the future-oriented, and often the past-oriented person.

Present-Hedonistic Person: Self indulgent, playful, enjoys all things that bring immediate pleasure and avoids those that involve much effort, work, planning, or unpleasantness. Lives to consume the good life and takes many different kinds of risks in part because he or she does not fully consider the realities of negative consequences and at the same time seeks stimulation and excitement. Is vulnerable to addictions of all sorts, regardless of knowledge of potential negative consequences. These people focus more on process and intrinsic motivation, rarely on products and extrinsically- motivated task performance. They are vulnerable to being caught up in social taps where short- term gains capture attention more than long- term negative consequences of imprudent actions. They do more poorly in academics (or when forced to function in future- oriented environments) than do the future people. However, where process and focus on immediate details is important, presents may do well, notably on some types of creative tasks, or activities with immediate feedback, such as video games. They can also enjoy play, sports, hobbies, high energy activities, intimacy, sexuality, parties, and may be more intense as friends. On the other hand, they are more emotional, volatile, easily upset, likely to violate convention and behave in anti-social ways, be delinquent, criminal, and aggressive.

Present-Fatalistic Person: These people are Present-Oriented by default rather than by choice. They believe it does not pay to plan since nothing works out for them as they envision. They feel their lives are externally controlled rather than internally orchestrated by them. Their self image is largely as a passive pawn of fate, of higher spiritual authority, or ideological, political, structural forces in their environment. For some, the fatalism is part of a religious value system in which individual initiative is subordinated to the power of a deity. For others, it is a byproduct of economic failure, of being lower class or of a stigmatized caste, with little real opportunity for changing their circumstances. The positive side of fatalism is belief in luck for changing current circumstances rather than hard work or planning; it is also likely to be bolstered by superstition and rituals. These people also have a negative attributional bias that sustains their fatalism by accepting blame for failure and disowning success as personally caused. They are likely to experience more severe psychological problems than those of other time types. Depression, eating disorders, drug addiction, suicide all ought to be more common for the fatalistic present person than others. They will perform most poorly in school because of their sell-fulfilling prophesy that nothing good happens to them, the game is fixed, they are disadvantaged, etc. These people are at great danger for engaging in all high risk, poor health activities, such as practicing unsafe sex even with a clear and present danger of AIDS or sexualiy transmitted diseases, since ‘ whatever will be, will be.”

Future-Orientated Person: This person’s decisions tend to be based less on concrete, empirical aspects of the current behavioral setting and relatively more on his or her anticipated, abstract imaginings of future consequences of alternative courses of action. The focus is on if-then reasoning, probabilistic thinking, logical analysis, reasoning backward from imagined goal states to start points as well as forward tracking from starts to finishes. There is a clear concern for the consequences of one’s actions, attention to responsibility, liability, optimizing outcomes. This person accepts delays of immediate gratification to achieve longer-term better goals. She or he is also willing to invest effort and resources in current activities that only have a distant payoff, and to endure unpleasant current situations that have the potential for positive future outcomes. They are willing to save for a rainy day, accept that a stitch in time may save unnecessary work later. They are goal-oriented and may be either very competitive or cooperative depending on which strategy is situationally appropriate. They do not take physical risks, and tend to be health conscious, engaging in a variety of health enhancing behaviors some of which involve effort, time, money, and little immediate gain — but prevent long-term negative consequences (flossing teeth, taking vitamins, eating health foods, getting health and dental checkups, etc.). They are good at problem solving and abstract reasoning tasks, get higher grades, fewer incompletes or extensions required in courses. They are able to avoid temptations and distractions that are perceived as short-term inducements or time wasting, such as play and other consummatory activities, when there is work to be done or tasks to be accomplished. Much of their behavior is primarily an instrumental means to goal attainment. On the down side, the future-oriented person is unable to enjoy present, transient, consumable activities and experiences. Often they are labeled as wasting time. They may have more difficulty than other time types with intimate relationships since they thrive on control and predictability, which ought to be absent or shared in intimate encounters. Also their micro level of planning means that they do not allow natural acts, such as sexual arousal, to occur without concern for controlling it, anticipating consequences, and being apprehensive about being evaluated for sexual performance. One of their main goals is increasing efficiency, getting more done in less time. To this end they will buy a host of time saving appliances and engage in time management activities. Their form of negative mental health should revolve around high levels of anxiety, manic behavior, workaholism, and failures to achieve their ideal state. If their goals, when attained, are not substantial, it is likely they will feel as if they have worked hard and become successful at something that really wasn’t worth it, thus leaving them with a sense of existential meaningless of their life’s worth — in other words, being set up for mid-life crises.

Past-Oriented Person: This type of person is relatively rare in the United States general population compared to the above types, and especially infrequent among college students. So we have less information available on them. But we might say tentatively is that their actions and decisions are primarily constrained by recalling similar situations and action-consequence sequences that did or did not work in the past. They are able to distance themselves from the concrete reality of the immediate situation, with its temptations, while focusing on their obligations, contractual arrangements, and standard operating procedures. Much more of their behavior will be influenced by the operation of guilt over discordance between current thoughts and actions and prior commitments. These people tend to be conservative, concerned over maintaining the status quo, whether it is really good or bad for them. They do not take risks and are not impressed by new, more efficient ways of doing familiar things. Rituals and myths play important roles in their lives as do traditional or fundamental values in religion and politics. They are suspicious of the new and different. Although they are likely to prize family and family rituals and enjoy social gatherings with friends and family, they do not open themselves to new experiences or to strangers. They may be prone to prejudices more so than future-oriented or present-hedonistic types, to the extent that they fear what is different. In social traps they will cooperate rather than compete because maintaining good social relationships is very important, rather than perceiving cooperation as a strategy for personal gain in these situations. They will also tend not to be adventurous, not to want to travel far afield or to live far from home. A positive side of past orientation is a sense of personal continuity or a stable sense of self over time, a sense of rootedness, that is lacking in futures and present-hedonists. To the extent that their past experiences are generally positive, these people will enjoy a nostalgic remembrance of the good old times despite current ills. But with a negative past, they become Smithsonians of trauma, failure, and frustration, endlessly recycling the non-modifiable past despite current good times.

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  1. [...] Central to  Zimbardo’s perspective on differences in time perspective is the consideration of the most relevant factors that influence a person’s decisions and actions at a given time.  An Overview of Time Perspective Types [...]