philip_zimbardo's picture
Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University; Author, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

Time Perspective Theory

I am here to tell you that the most powerful influence on our every decision that can lead to significant action outcomes is something that most of us are both totally unaware of and at the same time is the most obvious psychological concept imaginable.

I am talking about our sense of psychological time, more specifically, the way our decisions are framed by the time zones that you have learned to prefer and tend to overuse. We all live in multiple time zones, learned from childhood, shaped by education, culture, social class, and experiences with economic and family stability-instability. For most of us, we develop a biased temporal orientation that favors one time frame over others, becoming excessively oriented to past, present, or the future.

Thus, at decision time for major or minor judgments, some of us are totally influenced by factors in the immediate situation: The stimulus qualities, what others are doing, saying, urging, and one’s biological urges. Others facing the same decision matrix ignore all those present qualities by focusing instead on the past, the similarities between current and prior settings, remembering what was done and its effects. Finally, a third set of decision makers ignores the present and the past by focusing primarily on the future consequences of current actions, calculating costs vs. gains.

To complicate matters, there are sub domains of each of these primary time zones. Some past-oriented people tend to focus on negatives in their earlier experiences, regret, failure, abuse, trauma, while others are primarily past positive, focusing instead on the good old days, nostalgia, gratitude, and successes. There are two ways to be present-oriented, to live in present- hedonistic domain of seeking pleasure and novelty, and sensation seeking versus being present- fatalistic, living in a default present by believing nothing one does can make any changes in one’s future life. Future-oriented people are goal setters, plan strategies, tend to be successful, but another future focus is on the transcendental future—life begins after the death of the mortal body.

My interest in Time Perspective Theory inspired me to create an inventory to make it possible to determine exactly the extent to which we fit into each of these six time zones. The Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory, or ZTPI correlates scores on these time dimensions with a host of other psychological traits and behaviors. We have demonstrated that Time Perspective has a major impact across a vast domain of human nature. In fact, some of the relationships uncovered reveal correlation coefficients much greater than ever seen in traditional personality assessment. For example, Future orientation correlates .70 with the trait of conscientiousness, which in turn predicts to longevity. Present Hedonism correlates .70 with sensation seeking and novelty seeking. Those high on Past Negative are most likely to be high on measures of anxiety, depression and anger, with correlations as robust as .75. Similarly substantial correlations are uncovered between Present Fatalism and these measures of personal distress. I should add that this confirmatory factor analysis was conducted on a sample of functioning college students, thus such effects should be cause for alarm by counselors. Beyond mere correlations of scale measures, the ZTPI scales predict to a wide range of behaviors: Course grades, risk taking, alcohol, drug use and abuse, environmental conservation, medical checkups, creativity, problem solving, and much more.  

Finally, one of the most surprising discoveries is the application of Time Perspective theory to time therapy in “curing” PTSD in Veterans, as well as in sexually abused women or civilians suffering from motor vehicle fatality experiences. Dr. Richard Sword and Rosemary Sword have been treating with remarkably positive outcomes a number of veterans from all US recent wars and also civilian clients. The core of the treatment replaces the Past Negative and Present Fatalistic biased time zones common to those suffering from PTSD with a balanced time perspective that highlights the critical role of the hope-filled future, adds in some selected present hedonism, and introduces memories of a Past Positive nature. In a sample of 30 PTSD vets of varying ages and ethnicities, treated with Time Perspective Therapy for a relatively few sessions (compared to traditional cognitive behavioral therapies), dramatic positive changes have been found for all PTSD standard assessments, as well as in life-changing social and professional relationships.  It is so rewarding to see many of our honored veterans who have continued to suffer for decades from their combat-related severe traumas to discover a new life rich with opportunities, friends, family, fun and work by being exposed to this simple, elegant reframing of their mental orientation toward the life of their time.