Building up resilience in adolescents via time perspective: Interview with Zena Mello

Zena Mello with Dali-style melting clock

Time Talks: International Time Perspective Network thematic groups interview series

In these series we bring you individual stories about the members of the International Time Perspective Network. These stories delve into what these members are passionate about, how they bring their ideas to life, and what role time perspective plays in their lives.

We hope that you’ll be inspired by the many aspects of time in this interview series. Please share our fascination and join the dialogue! Our next meeting will take place in Copenhagen, Denmark: 15–19 August, 2016. Celebrating Time.

International Time Perspective Network | Diversity of Approaches, Unity of Passion


It is our big pleasure to introduce you to Dr. Zena Mello, an Assistant Professor of Developmental Psychology at San Francisco State University, whose psychological research examines factors that facilitate the health and well-being of racial or ethnic minority and low-income adolescents. Dr. Mello uses interdisciplinary perspectives and mixed-methods approaches to investigate two areas. First, she contributes toward the theory and measurement of time perspective. Second, she examines topics specific to minority group membership including anticipated discrimination in educational and occupational attainment and stereotype threat.

Zena has been a crusader in terms of keeping the time perspective construct measurable among adolescents. Zena, together with her colleague, Frank Worrell, undertook a huge job — to create an instrument that would work properly among the teenager population. Many of us are familiar with psychological tests from magazines such as Cosmopolitan, and they seem to be easy to come up with. However, it is a totally different story with the instruments that are used for research purposes. It is a long-term project — to create an instrument, and especially one that works. It takes a lot of effort to operationalize the concept in question (to define how a concept can be actually measured), to come up with items (the questions used), to organize test runs, to edit and to reedit the items, etc… I have only done an adaptation of a test (which is a tedious and time-taking task as well) and never had ventured onto a developing a test from scratch, but I have tremendous respect for those who do and we hope to open up a bit the curtain.

We have invited Grazia Carelli to make the interview, since both Grazia and Zena have similar research interests in terms of adolescents and cultures and both have experience with constructing psychological measurement tools.

We hope that some of those insights will help our reader to also better understand how actually the psychological research is done, how it functions, and to show some bits of the huge work that usually stays “off stage”.

Anna Sircova, Time Talks creator and editor


How did you come to be interested in studying time? In my case, it was my daughter Sofia who led me to study time and later the field of time perspective research. When she was three years old, she asked me, “Mommy, you always say ‘tomorrow’ to me… we are going to do that ‘tomorrow’… go somewhere… But MOMMY what do you actually MEAN by ‘tomorrow’? Did you have a similar experience? Some episode in your life that gave you reason to reflect on the meaning of time?

ZM: When I was in college, I read about a study that showed how adolescents who were resilient thought more positively about the future. I was so impressed with the idea that people could overcome adversity with how they think about time. From that moment forward, I have remained interested in the topic. My research has included the conceptualization and measurement of time perspective. I want to show how time perspective is related to human functioning in adolescence. Then I will use that information to generate intervention programs based on time perspective to promote resilience in adolescents. Time perspective has the potential to make people’s lives better.

Reading your research, one question that comes up in my mind is your reference to time as “time attitude.” What do you think is the difference between that and using the terms “time perspective” or “time orientation”?

ZM: Time perspective has been defined in so many ways that I thought it would be useful to distinguish its multiple dimensions. For example, having a positive attitude about the future (time attitude) is different than focusing on the future more than the present and the past (time orientation), and both of these dimensions are distinct from how we define time (time meaning). Conceptualizing time perspective is important for our ability to contribute toward intervention programs. We must first know which specific and distinct dimensions of time perspective are associated with human functioning before we can use it to change behaviors.

Your research is often targeted on Adolescents: is there any particular reason for your interest in that period of life?

ZM: Yes, adolescence is a wonderful developmental period to focus on given the opportunity to positively affect adult outcomes. It is also a useful age to show time perspective differences across the life-span, given changes in identity, cognitive abilities, and brain functioning. Developmentally, we would expect to see changes in time perspective between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

Recently, you published an article with an intriguing title: “Measuring time perspective in adolescents: Can you get the right answer by asking the wrong questions?” Could you tell us more about that, please?

ZM: How we measure time perspective has important implications for our understanding of the construct. The Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory has spawned so many studies, and there are now many versions of varying length in the literature. Thus, it is important to determine if they are measuring the same constructs.

You are interested in both cultural aspects and time. How do these two important aspects interact, in your opinion?

ZM: Yes, I am increasingly fascinated by the cross-cultural similarities and differences in time perspective. In a study I have conducted with my colleagues Samuel Oladipo, Victoria Paoloni, and Frank Worrell, we showed how Nigerians think much more about the future than Americans. Specifically, 97% of Nigerians thought about the future every day compared to 60% of Americans, even after controlling for socioeconomic status. This is a huge difference. We hope to replicate this finding and to include other cultures in additional studies (the paper on this will be accessible here when published).

But in terms of Immediate Future and Long-term Future which we discussed in our interview with Prof. Joireman what are your suggestions who think more ahead, Nigerians or Americans?

ZM: This is a great question! Considering cross-cultural differences in how much people focus on the immediate or long-term future is related to how we define the future. A long-term future might be different for someone in Nigeria than America, given differences in life-expectancy. Essentially, what is “long” could be related to economic opportunities. So, even though Nigerians think more often about the future they might think less far into the future than Americans. We will need more research to know this for sure!

Illistration by Danka Davydiuk

What are your ongoing projects in the field of time research?

ZM: Now that the Adolescent Time Inventory (ATI) has been established in the literature, my work is turning toward conducting studies that use the ATI to predict important health outcomes in adolescence, such as sexual behavior, substance use, and physical activity. I am also examining relationships with spending and time perspective and continuing many international projects. There are so many interesting avenues of research with time perspective!

Will you be attending ICTP3 in Copenhagen next summer?

ZM: Yes, and I am really looking forward to the meeting and to learning about all of the time perspective research projects!

Thank you!


This interview is brought to you by:

Interviewers | members of the Integration of the Field thematic group

Grazia in the spiral of time……..

Maria Grazia Carelli — Ph.D, Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Umeå, Sweden. Her research interests are on cognitive, neural and psychopathological mechanisms of time perspective. Part of the research project deals also with developmental aspects of time conceptualization. For more information and list of publications please visit her homepage. Or contact Maria Grazia by email: grazia.carelli@psy.umu.se

During the workshop for children

Illustration — Danka Davydiuk, a young artist from L’viv, Ukraine, who works in monumental painting, the author of illustrations for books for children. More illustrations you can find at bogdana davydiuk and here.

Proof-reading — Natalie Odisho, interested in the intersection between well-being and time perspective. As a wellness specialist, Natalie investigates motivation of the individual and how this shapes mass behavior. Her experience includes intensive detoxification training, Refugee: The Eritrean Exodus documentary, and Style’s New York Fashion Week.

Assistant editor — Oksana Senyk, assistant at Psychology Department, Ivan Franko National University of L’viv, Ukraine

Idea and realization (and preface) — Anna Sircova, Twitter @anna_bki


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