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Balanced Time Perspective


1. Introduction

2. Definitions

3. Balanced Time Perspective

4. If you only read one thing…

5. Key Studies

6. Historical and Cultural Connections

7-9. Practical Applications

10. Gaps Between Theory and Empirical Testing

11. Balanced Time Perspective and Other Areas of Positive Psychology

12. References

1. Introduction

"For us convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is an illusion, although a persistent one."

- Albert Einstein

Your time perspective is the kind of glasses you habitually put on when you look at the world around and at yourself in it. These glasses have three main types of lenses: past, present and future. Are you a here-and-now person? Do you sometimes think that you are stuck in the past? Choosing between work and play, do you usually go for work because your future depends on it? Time Perspective (TP) relates to whether we focus on our past, present or future when we make decisions and take actions.

2. Definitions

Time perspective (TP) is recognised as "a nonconscious process whereby the continual flow of personal and social experiences are assigned to temporal categories, or time frames, that help to give order, coherence and meaning to those events" (Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999). Zimbardo and Boyd (1999) have proposed five time perspective constructs.

Past-Negative: This attitude reflects a generally negative, pessimistic and aversive view towards the past. This negative attitude towards the past may be due to actual events that were experienced as traumatic or unpleasant, or may be due to negative reconstruction of past events. Often this attitude may be a mix of both. A person who has a predominantly Past-Negative attitude may often find himself/herself ruminating over unpleasant past experiences, and thus reliving the disappointment or trauma.

Present-Hedonistic: This attitude is characterised by one that is "living for the moment". Thus, risk taking and hedonistic behaviours are associated with people who subscribe to this way of thought. It suggests an orientation towards present pleasure to such an extent that little concern is shown for future consequences.

Future: People who subscribe to this attitude are concerned with future goals and rewards. Thus, this attitude is associated with a focus on the future, where the present situation is contemplated in terms of future consequences.

Past-Positive: People with an attitude that is Past-Positive have a tendency to reflect on past experiences. However, in contrast to the Past-Negative attitude, this tendency generates feelings of warmth, and sentimentality.

Present-Fatalistic: This attitude reflects a predominantly helpless and hopeless stance towards life and the future in general. People who think in this manner, often feel out of control in the situations that they find themselves in.

3. Balanced Time Perspective

Carstensen and her colleagues (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, & Charles, 1999) have proposed that a person's perception of time plays an integral role in the selection and pursuit of social goals, with important implications for emotion, cognition and motivation. The past, present, and future temporal frames are used in encoding, storing and recalling experienced events, as well as in forming expectations, goals, and possible scenarios. It has been suggested that an optimal time perspective is balanced and allows flexible transitions among temporal orientations that are most situationally appropriate (Zimbardo, Boyd & Keogh, 1999). When a specific orientation is used too often, and others too rarely, a person may become "biased" in their perspective of time. For example, people who are predominantly present orientated may be able to enjoy the moment, but they may have a problem with delay gratification and planning of realistic goals (Zimbardo, 2002). People with high future orientation are good at meeting long term obligations, but on the other hand may be inclined to sacrifice present joys and gratification. Those with high past orientation are able to appreciate and honour obligations and responsibilities, but may be rigid when faced with change.

A balanced time perspective (BTP) has been proposed as a more positive alternative to living life as a slave of any particular temporal bias (Boniwell & Zimbardo, 2004; Boyd & Zimbardo, 2005). “In an optimally balanced time perspective, the past, present and future components blend and flexibly engage, depending on a situation’s demands and our needs and values” (Zimbardo, 2002, p. 62). A number of publications have suggested BTP as a theoretical possibility. In terms of ZTPI, it is usually operationally defined as a combination of high scores on Past-Positive (PP), Present-Hedonistic (PH) and Future (F) scales in conjunction with low scores on the Past-Negative (PN) and Present-Fatalistic (PF) scales (Boniwell & Zimbardo, 2004).

4. If you only read one thing...

Zimbardo, P. G., and Boyd, J. N. (1999). Putting time in Perspective: A valid, reliable individual-differences metric. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6). 1271 - 1288.

This paper is often cited by other researchers in the BTP literature, as it is in this study that Zimbardo and Boyd define the five time perspectives (explained in the Introduction section) and propose the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (ZTPI) test instrument, which is now widely used to assess the time perspective of individuals.

To ensure that their measure of time perspective was valid, the researchers based their hypotheses on a wide background literature. In the introduction, Zimbardo and Boyd draw on the results of several previous experiments which found that thought patterns and behaviours typical of the proposed time perspective orientation affected the mood, mental state and/or cognitive wellbeing of those who expressed them. For example, a study by Lyubomirsky and Nolen-Hoeksema (1995) found that excessive rumination of negative events in the past - which is typical of someone with a high Past Negative orientation - was associated with a greater risk of developing depression. Based on the evidence of such studies, Zimbardo and Boyd compared participant scores on the Past Negative perspective with their scores on tests for aspects of wellbeing such as depression, anxiety, and unhappiness, finding significant correlations for these variables and others. They repeated this process on all five proposed time perspectives, finding correlations between previous research, the proposed features of each time perspective - such as thought patterns, cognitive styles and behaviours - and the outcome that these features had on the wellbeing of individuals. They also examined the predictive validity of the time perspective inventory by analysing case studies. This allowed them to examine the life effects which were proposed to be correlated with different time perspectives in a real life setting, ensuring that they were in fact present in the life of individuals and not artificially produced by the empirical experimental procedure.

In doing so, Zimbardo and Boyd demonstrated that the five time perspectives are a valid and meaningful assessment of the extent to which an individual dwells on these areas of their life, and that the ZTPI measures an individual's orientation to these time perspectives in a way which reliably predicts life outcomes which are consistent with previous research. This paper has therefore been very influential in the literature as it establishes a base of well evidenced theory and a valid test with which to measure time perspective orientation. It has also inspired much further research, where the effects of balanced and imbalanced time perspectives are examined in greater detail - some examples of further research are given in the "Key Studies in BTP" section.

This paper is a good starter reference for the reasons stated above, but also because it provides a wide overview of the research which led to the development of time perspective theory. Zimbardo and Boyd reference a wide range of studies in which different life effects are associated with the time perspective orientations, such as a study by Guarino et al (1999) where it was found that people with a higher Future orientation are more likely to participate in cancer screening programmes. Another study referenced, Rothspan and Read (1996) found that college students high on the Present Hedonistic orientation were more likely to engage in risky and promiscuous sexual behaviour. This evidence is interesting to read as it directly links the empirical theory to aspects of life which we can relate to. Several experiments and statistical analysis are incorporated into the study, which makes it a lengthy piece of work; however each section presents its conclusions in a brief discussion section which is clear and manageable to the reader. The main discussion section brings the findings together, and discusses how the TP model relate to a wide range of research topics. For example, Zimbardo and Boyd suggest that a high Past Positive orientation influences the extent to which an individual views the present and future in an optimistic light. In doing so, they argue the importance of balance between the time perspectives; by highlighting the effect one perspective has on cognitive processes, other perspectives and our subjective life experiences.

In the following videos, Zimbardo explains his current ideas on BTP:

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