“… In Swahili, the present is described as Sasa and the past as Zamani. No word for future exists.” — Interview with Professor Jones

Time Talks: International Time Perspective Network thematic groups interview series

In this 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


On September 1, 2011, the American Psychological Association (APA) presented Professor James Jones the Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contributions to Psychology — the association’s highest honor — for his 30 years of accomplishments on issues of racism and diversity. “You have ‘walked the talk’ and blazed a trail in support of social justice,” the APA said.

James M. Jones is Professor of Psychology and Black American Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of Diversity at the University of Delaware. Professor Jones’ first book, Prejudice and Racism, was published in 1972, and the second edition in 1997. It still stands as a classic analysis of race, class and culture in psychology. His most recent book, The Psychology of Diversity (with John F. Dovidio and Deborah Vietze) was published by Wiley in 2013. He currently serves on the American Bar Association Task Force on the impact of Stand Your Ground laws on Black and Latino communities.

Professor Jones studies the psychology of time focus and the ways in which consideration of the past, present and future follow different paths in different cultures. He also studies cultural psychology from the lens of his psycho-cultural theory, which argues that Time, Rhythm, Improvisation, Orality and Spirituality (TRIOS) provide a source of coping and adaptation for people belonging to marginalized and oppressed groups.

It is our pleasure to present this interview with Professor Jones to you. Enjoy!


Please will you tell us about your research related to time over the years?

I began my interest in time as part of explorations of psychological aspects of African diaspora culture. I spent a year in Trinidad where the expression “Any time is Trinidad time (ATTT)” raised curious possibilities for further exploration. I found that in a cultural context, time was the context for several cultural characteristics such as Rhythm, Improvisation, Orality, Spirituality, which led to my TRIOS theory. Each of these characteristics is influenced by time, or expressed in-time.

My work showed that present-orientation was at the heart of the ATTT concept. Present time created a sense of personal control, or environmental mastery. A typical daily greeting of “how you doing?” typically led to a hedged response of “Okay, up to now.” The future is not taken for granted: one day at a time; one moment at a time. The linearity of clock time had little currency in an ATTT world. As a result, one could make decisions based on the information contained in the immediate circumstance. I corroborated that in my Temporal Orientation scale (Jones et al, 2002) present orientation was negatively related to concern with future consequences and goal orientation. Additionally, present orientation was positively associated with optimism, extraversion and impulsivity. My personal experience was that we tend to worry too much about the future. That balance of present and future focus across situations would produce the most effective outcomes.

Related to the present time focus was a past time significance. In Swahili, present is described as Sasa and the past as Zamani. No word for future exists. This leads to a cyclical unfolding of life where the present recedes into the past. A cyclical time sense, as E.T. Hall noted about S-Time — disrupts the customary linearity of time. I described this cyclical sense as Tempoagnostic (indifference to time), in contrast to the idea of time as an asset or inherent value implied by temponomic conceptions.

What is most surprising about your findings?

Perhaps somewhat surprising was learning what implications a completely present time focus meant — time could not be wasted, saved or invested as we customarily think about and talk about it because it has no inherent value. The degree to which time becomes an asset is implicated in cultural beliefs about, political economies, and international relations. Differences on these sources of time sense may underlie national differences in culture.

Illustration by Svitlana Falenda

What do you find to be the most important outcome of your research?

Over the years I showed racial differences in time sense were accompanied by other characteristics related to the TRIOS concept. Most recently, I have been interested in the past as a repository for guidelines to the future — What I have called the Sankofa effect. My idea is that by understanding time, you can understand a variety of psychological characteristics that are culturally embedded. The past is not a static reflection of a hedonic valuation (good or bad, positive or negative) but an actively autobiographical construction. The past is as variable as one’s conception of future possibilities. How we construct our past shapes what we imagine in the future and simultaneously influences the decisions we make in the present. This is the real meaning of Lewin’s notion of the life space where the past and future are part of the psychological present. I have not figured it all out but I am beginning to explore how the past influences the present with a series of experimental studies.

The other big issue I have addressed is the idea of collective time perspective. We tend to think about time in terms of how individuals perceive or experience it. But we may also reflect on the collective or global sense of time — our past, or future, the past of this place or the future of the planet. The real challenge is how the collective interacts with the personal time sense to guide individual behavior. I raised some of these issues in my keynote address at TP2 (2nd International Conference on Time Perspective, Poland, Warsaw, 29th July-1st August 2014 — TimeTalks) in Warsaw, and continue to examine them.

What have you spent your time on since the last conference?

My latest work addresses the idea that the past plays divergent roles for blacks and whites in perceptions of racial discrimination. Whites tend to see the past as disconnected to the present, while blacks see it as integral to persistent patterns of racial discrimination in the present. These are two narratives which we have developed as predictors of contemporary attitudes about discrimination. Recent research, currently ongoing, primes whites with these historical views and assesses their effect on perceptions of fairness and discrimination. These ideas follow from the Sankofa effect research which showed that race salience is a significant predictor of past orientation for blacks but not whites. Further, past-orientation mediated the relationship of race salience to feelings of environmental mastery. In general, differences in perceptions of the relevance of past discrimination to the present varies by race. These differences in perceptions have psychological consequences that predict different views of the current status of race relations.

So from your research is it possible to generalize that people who have had negative experiences in their past are more past-oriented when compared to those who do not have such an experience, or even those who were the cause of such an experience for others?

I am not sure my research along supports this claim, but there are several reasons why this could be true or not true. Negative past experiences could lead to repression, which would diminish a past-orientation. Negative experiences tend to be more salient and a psychological conduit to the past. This might make the past more accessible, thus one more past-oriented. Negative experiences may be threatening to self-esteem, so we may be inclined to distance ourselves from them. Positive experiences may enhance self-esteem so we remember positive pasts as more proximal. By temporal distancing theory, negative experiences may reduce one’s past-orientation, while positive past experiences may increase it. From the collective experiences, negative pasts for one’s group may, as you conjecture, increase one’s past orientation. I do believe that is an element of the Sankofa effect.

Illustration by Svitlana Falenda

Although we know that the way in which people perceive and use time is an important difference between cultures, there is only limited research attention regarding this topic. Why do you think this is the case?

This is a hard question to answer. One reason is that we have tended to focus on universals in time perspective — ZTPI invariance. We have tended to use Western notions of time as predictors of how time is conceived, experienced and affects behavior across cultures. Perhaps if more researchers from other cultures developed emic, culturally relevant theoretical orientations, we would pay greater attention to testing divergent theoretical ideas about time. Adapting more of the cultural and cross-cultural psychological methods and theoretical ideas to the study of time perspective would accomplish this.

We have seen that globalization may imply that particular values are adopted from different cultures, such as individualism, but also habits, such as eating particular types of food. Would it also mean that the most powerful will spread their values on how time should be used? Could globalization lead to cultural imperialism regarding how we perceive time?

My experience is no! It is very difficult to change the fundamental psychological level in which time is integral to culture. As Schweder puts it, “culture and psyche make each other up.” Time is integral to both psyche and culture. My connection of time to spirituality, rhythm, orality and improvisation suggests that its role is integral to what a culture is. That is not necessarily changed by more globalization. It is part of the global diversity that we understand cultural differences — including time perspective — must be recognized if cultural understanding will serve a global community to the benefit of all.

Illustration by Svitlana Falenda

Based upon your past research, do you have any suggestions on how different cultures might react to changes around the world and deal with the future?

Cultural DNA is not easily changed. National institutions, policies and programs are inspired by that DNA. So the only thing I can suggest is based on extrapolation from the predicted benefit of diversity in the U.S. context. Diverse perspectives lead to better solutions. The logical necessity for this conclusion is beautifully illustrated by Scott Page’s book The Difference. So I think it is matter of allowing the diverse perspectives to play a role, not to try and change them in accordance with some agreed upon standard. Different time perspectives can combine — somewhat like the balanced time perspective. Not in an individual difference way, within countries, but across countries where they engage and adopt and adapt to different time orientations. Well-being is multifaceted, not just hedonic happiness. Thus, we need synthetic both/and approaches rather than divergent either/or approaches. What we learn from the past depends on our present attitude and affect and what we expect of the future. For example, efforts to reduce adverse global warming effects adopt a future-oriented approach, but in some developing countries, present concerns with viability postpone those efforts at forestalling future catastrophe. The issue cannot be solved globally with neither an exclusive present nor a future orientation.

Can we expect in the future some book about collective time perspective? Since the topic is super-interesting!

Well, I will be retiring soon (2019), so maybe then I will focus my attention on this. It is part of the broader question of how the self and group merge within a person. As DuBois wrote about over 100 years ago, “double consciousness”:

It is a challenge and perhaps an opportunity when your group is marginalized or oppressed. Resilience may reflect the ability to combine the strength provided by the collective with individual agency. See you’ve got me thinking about the book already!

Thank you!


This interview is brought to you by:

Interviewers | members of the Integration of the Field thematic group

Dr. Wendelien van Eerde — Associate Professor at Amsterdam Business School, University of Amsterdam. Her research focuses on procrastination, time management, and work motivation. She is fascinated by the cultural differences associated with these topics. Furthermore, she is on a quest for the best evidence-based intervention to help people who suffer from procrastination. For more information and published articles please visit Wendelien’s profiles at ResearchGate and Google Scholar.

Oksana Senyk — PhD, Assistant Professor at Psychology Department, Ivan Franko National University of Lviv. Her current research interest focuses on time perspective in the period of socioeconomical crisis, time perspective of artists and individual differences in chronotype. You can contact Oksana on Facebook or via email senyk.ok@gmail.com

Illustration — Svitlana Falenda, designer, photographer and social media manager from L’viv, Ukraine. An author of four art exhibitions, experienced talent management coordinator (AIESEC), she was honored awards for “Best graphics” and “Best photographs” (2012, 2013). For contact information and more of her works please visit Svitlana’s profiles at LinkedIn and Behance.

Proof-reading — Natalie Odisho is a media specialist who’s experience includes Refugee: The Eritrean Exodus documentary, and Style’s New York Fashion Week. Please contact her through Twitter or email natalieodisho@gmail.com


Assistant editor — Oksana Senyk

Idea and realization — Anna Sircova, Twitter @anna_bki


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