Time Zones

Phil Zimbardo was in Brisbane yesterday to give a talk to customers of his textbook publisher.  You have probably heard of him if you know anything about the Stanford Prison Experiment.  This was the 1971 study in which subjects were assigned to play the role of a prisoner or a guard in a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University.  All sorts of interesting things happened, which you can read about here, but the experiment led Zimbardo to study many related issues over the next 35 years.  Yesterday's talk was not about those issues nor did he promote his best seller, The Lucifer Effect (although he did sign my copy!).  Instead, his 75 minute presentation was about time--a topic that I have written about before in this blog.

Zimbardo has developed and validated a research questionnaire that measures five main dimensions of a person's time orientation.  He argues that most people are not aware of where they lie on these dimensions, but these 'time zones' strongly influence what we do at any given moment.  Here's a brief description of a high score in each zone:
  • past positive:  someone who frequently thinks about their past in a positive way; strong ties to family and friends; likes traditions; particularly resistant to new things
  • past negative: someone who frequently thinks about their past, but in a negative way; tends to think of themselves as a victim of abuse, neglect, bad circumstances; strongly associated with depression
  • present fatalistic: someone who thinks only about today, but largely from a "how am I going to survive today?"; believes there is little they can do to control their futures, so they tend to be reactive rather than proactive; more common in people with impoverished lives
  • present hedonistic: someone who lives in the moment, trying to maximise their pleasure and minimise pain; they tend not to carry watches, schedule appointments, and are frequently late; strongly associated with addiction; most likely to enjoy sex; little no or concern about the consequences of their actions
  • future: these are people who are most likely to think about the consequences before taking action; they tend to have highly scheduled, busy lives; tend to be most successful of the five time zones; experience more anxiety but less depression; more socially isolated; fewer sensual pleasures
It's an interesting framework to think about many personal and societal problems, and Zimbardo has about 20 years of research on all of this.  For example, he finds that Stanford students who score high on Future do better in all their classes, whereas Present Hedonists only do well if it's a class they like.  Minority students from impoverished backgrounds tend to be Present-oriented, which puts them at a disadvantage in school because they don't tend to think about the probabilities of different outcomes.  Societies with many people in Past-Positive (think of Sarah Palin and her friends at the Republican Convention!) tend to be slow to change, and will likely have more problems with increasing globalisation.  The closer one is to the equator, the more you find Present oriented people, probably because they don't have to worry about the change of seasons.

According to Zimbardo, it's best to have a mix of the time zones to offset the negatives of each.  The optimal profile is to be high in Past-Positive, mid-high in Future, and mid in Present-Hedonist.  That is, have rich positive connections to your past with a good dose (but not too high) of a future orientation and ample enjoyment of the moment.  Reaching such an optimal balance can be challenging, however, depending on where you live, what you're up against, and your life experiences.  Here's a link to his book, if you want more info.  He also spoke about some trends in American society, a country that is probably overloaded with Future people.  A USA Today poll in 1987 found that 59% of respondents had a family dinner each day, whereas today it's 20% that do.  More than 50% of today's respondents say they are busier this year than last year.  What did they tend to sacrifice to make up the time?  Friends, family, and fun.  What would they do if they had an extra day in the week?  Most said they would use it to catch up with work.  

I found this talk highly stimulating.  Interestingly, Zimbardo rarely refers to biological processes in his work (he's a strong environmentalist).  I'm thinking that social neuroscience could help flesh out some of the details.