Time Orientation by Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo is a psychologist who has worked on what can make “normal” people turn bad (the Stanford Prison Experiment and his book “The Lucifer Effect”), and he has an interesting proposal of how much of our attitudes can be explained as time orientation. I first found out about it from his talk at the 2008 Beyond Belief conference; he shows some slides that give correlations of his time orientations with various personality factors.

He has a site dedicated to it, The Time Paradox where you can learn more, and he even has some online quizzes related to time orientation:

Here are his most important time orientations, which he describes in detail in An Overview of Time Perspective Types

  • Past Positive: concern with nice past-related things like family and tradition and participation in family gatherings and traditional rituals. A downside is that one can become xenophobic or neophobic (fearful of new things).
  • Past Negative: concern with past traumas and hurts, almost as if one continues to suffer them.
  • Present Positive (Hedonism): concern with present pleasures, to the point of impulsiveness. Being playful and self-indulgent. Some downsides are that one is unwilling to plan for the future and likely to ignore future adverse consequences, thus becoming careless and reckless.
  • Present Negative (Fatalism): being resigned to one’s current situation from the belief that one cannot control it. Often associated with believing that one is a failure, which may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Present-negative people may think that taking care of themselves is not worth doing, thus converging on a downside of being present-positive.
  • Future: concern with achieving future goals and willingness to do what is necessary to achieve them, including sacrificing present pleasure and comfort. This also includes avoiding physical risks and being concerned about one’s health. A downside is that one may become too performance-oriented and unable to enjoy momentary pleasures; one may also become a workaholic. One may also end up feeling like a failure if one’s achieved goals are too small in proportion to the effort needed to achieve them.

In some other work, he adds a Transcendental Future, concern with what happens in one’s afterlife. For some curious reason, he does not divide Future into Future Positive and Future Negative.

Children start out as Present Positive and gradually increase their Future orientation.

Zimbardo proposes that there is no one ideal time orientation, and that it is best to have a mixture of past-positive, present-positive, and future. One would switch between them as appropriate, which helps in avoiding their downsides. Past-positive makes you feel rooted, present-positive makes you feel energetic, and future makes one have a sense of direction, of goals that one wants to achieve.

Zimbardo’s orientations have various amounts of correlation with the Big Five personality traits: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Future orientation has a strong positive association with Conscientiousness, for instance.

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