Past, Present or Future? *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

Everyone has asked themselves, "Who am I?" "Where am I?" and "Where am I going?" Each of these questions has a different time perspective. Even though we live in the present, we might be oriented toward any time frame past, present or future. This time orientation can greatly influence our lives.

Orientation to the past provides us with an autobiographical sense of self who we are. Memories of those who spawned us give us a sense of tradition, commitment, responsibility and even guilt.

Future orientation enables us to plan, to set goals and achieve them, and to have anxiety about these goals being thwarted.

The present is dichotomous "things either are or they are not." The present is where we play, fear, and savor the joys of living. At birth, we know only the present. As we grow, our society can train us to emphasize any time perspective.

Individualistic cultures like ours with its Protestant ethic tends to emphasize future orientation, while collectivist cultures are more likely to stress a past or present orientation. For example, Japan combines its traditional focus on the past with an obsession for the future. This gives it a very prosperous economy, but Japanese workers have the least amount of vacation time of any country in the world.

As a contrast, the youth of the Woodstock Era emphasized an expanded present. The present situation is king, and one's sense of tradition, standards and morality is irrelevant. More recently, both American and Japanese youth are being influenced by the present-oriented video games and MTV messages of "Just do it! ", causing a conflict between generations. Because they have different time orientations, the adults in both cultures have a hard time understanding the younger generations.

Philip G. Zimbardo of Stanford University hypnotized some students to produce either future orientation or an expanded present orientation. In contrast to their future-oriented peers, college students in the expanded present become more child-like. They are more emotional and more impulsive. They think less and react more, and they are less efficient in meeting deadlines for tasks.

Zimbardo found more differences among other students in both high school and college, whose time orientations were determined by administering the "Stanford Time Perspective Inventory."

In developing a time perspective,
the key idea seems to be "balance."

People who hold more extreme time-oriented views are more intolerant of those who have contrasting time orientations. A healthy alternative is to develop a balance between past, present and future orientations. We can cherish the past, plan for the future and still enjoy the present.

* Adapted from Philip G. Zimbardo's talk, "Whose Time Is It? I Think I Know: Research on Time Perspectives," presented at the American Psychological Association Convention in Los Angeles, August 13, 1994.

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