The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd

João Martinho
Feb 4, 2018 · 5 min read

The Time Paradox is another book that can fundamentally alter the way you go about your day to day and more to the point, change your view on life. The fact that it accomplishes this without delving into much philosophy makes it more valuable as it should cater to the scientific minds as well.

The name of Dr Phil Zimbardo might ring a bell if you have read anything about 20th-century psychology at all. He was the Stanford professor who in 1971 led the now famous Stanford prison experiment.

But this book doesn’t focus on that study. The Time Paradox, as the name suggests, explores the relationship we have with time. Zimbardo and Boyd show how the pace of life can change the way people behave with their peers. One example is how the faster pace of life in the Northeast cities in the US (Boston, New York, etc) led to lower results on people being helpful with each other.

We are presented with the six orientations that each person has for time:

  • Past-negative
  • Past-positive
  • Present-fatalistic
  • Present-hedonistic
  • Future
  • Transcendental-future

Each of these orientations can influence everything in our lives, from how we work to how we behave around others and how happy we are at each moment.

Past-oriented people, in general, will be more conservative and religious, but can also be more stable. They tend to live life through rituals and might suffer from excess guilt (especially if past-negative).

Present-oriented people are more fun to be around and focus on experiences which can bring them pleasure in the moment. They struggle with delaying gratification and their thinking is more concrete (versus more abstract).

Finally, future-oriented people are more goal-oriented and can delay gratification with ease. They usually thrive on control and struggle with enjoying fun, in the moment, activities and with relationships, due to the lack of control of what the partner might say or do.

In all, a great read that can help us understand ourselves better and devise strategies to deal with shortcomings for the pursuit of a meaningful life.

future-oriented people are the most likely to be successful and the least likely to help others in need. Ironically, the people who are best able to help are the least likely to do so. In contrast, present-oriented people are less likely to be successful but are more likely to help others.

The past may give you a sense of security, especially if your recollections are good ones. However, new adventures lie ahead. If you are stuck in the past, you are less likely to take chances and risks, to make new friends, to try new foods, or to expose yourself to new music and art. You want the status quo and abhor change. If the people in a culture that uses the past to evaluate current situations share a past trauma, they are likely to want revenge — even if the crimes against them were committed many decades ago. The perceived perpetrators are not forgiven; they must be punished. This vendetta mentality undercuts attempts at peaceful reconciliation and promotes violence and warfare as new generations are obligated to avenge or pay for crimes against their parents or grandparents. To the extent that people share positive views of the past, they seek to maintain the status quo culturally and politically. They do not want change; rather, they seek to conserve and re-create in the present what was good in the past. This view may blind them to newer, better ways of doing things. In a global economy, nations that live in the past will be left behind.

Yesterday is already a dream And tomorrow but a vision But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness And every tomorrow a vision of hope.

We will win the war on terror not by destroying our enemy’s future but by nurturing it. The motivational power of the mundane future must be restored if mundane future goals are to compete with transcendental-future goals. Only by building a mundane future full of hope, optimism, respect, health, and prosperity can the motivational power of the transcendental future be balanced.

We have to respect people for their pasts and allow them to enjoy the present. The first step toward such a change must entail providing adequate resources and opportunities to those who lack them: food, shelter, and money, as well as opportunities for education, employment, recreation, relaxation, and community celebration — the basic human needs in any civilized society. A second step requires instilling a sense of personal responsibility for seizing a desirable opportunity. Individual initiative must be encouraged and rewarded. The embers of intrinsic motivation must be carefully tended and fanned. Fatalistic passivity must be replaced by an “I can do it” stance. The third step entails moderating transcendental-future time perspectives and supplementing them with more practical future time perspectives. Expecting people to change their transcendental-future beliefs is insulting, naive, and may exacerbate conflict. A more reasonable approach is to offer hope, opportunity, and fulfillment in the future on the way to the Promised Land. The development of a future time perspective requires stable political, economic, and family conditions. People must believe that their actions today will lead to predictable and desirable rewards in the future. Without stable environments, accurate prediction is impossible. Creating political, economic, social, and familial stability may require creating structures that guide and protect, stabilizing those structures, and eliminating the external forces that threaten them.

What is critical to couples’ constructive criticism of each other is to first make evident what each thinks the other person is saying: “It seems to me that what you are saying is that you don’t like X, don’t want to do Y, and believe Z is true. Is that the case, or am I misunderstanding you?” You are not accusing the other, merely opening a dialogue about perceived differences of opinion. Second, it rarely helps to nag someone about past mistakes; that only makes him guilty or defensive. Rather, reframe the criticism in terms of what he might consider doing in the future to achieve his objective. “Next time when you want me to be more socially active at the office party, let me know in advance whom you would like me to talk with, and I will do my best to oblige.” Rather than “You embarrassed me by acting like a princess who was too damn good for my friends.”

When lost in the past or engrossed in the future, you cannot be present, and happiness rushes by like a gourmet meal eaten in the car on the way to a dentist appointment. Thoughts of the past and the future can bring you happiness, but they do so by bringing happiness into the present state of mind.

Originally published at João’s Notes.

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