Lecture Hall, Psychology Building, Stanford University — January 27

Professor Zimbardo gives a lecture on “Time Perspective”, a concept he seems to have essentially come up with himself, but which he feels (not without some justification) is rather important. The basic idea is that people have different focuses on time (past, present, or future) with different tinges (positive or negative). So you can be overly focused on the good-old-days (past-negative) or just trying to have fun right now (present-hedonistic). Stanford students, obviously, are too focused on the future.

Zimbardo elucidates a theory of society based on this concept. Schools train kids to be more future oriented. “There are teacher training courses on how to be boring” so that the kids learn to deal with boredom, in preparation for their boring jobs. And if the schools are too interesting, they tell kids stories. Boys get the Three Little Pigs, where the lesson is that if you don’t plan ahead they’ll take away your house. Girls get Cinderella, which has a similar message. Then we give girls dolls so they can plan ahead for motherhood. Zimbardo himself bought his son a game that requires planning. And then there’s the Adam and Eve story.

Zimbardo himself has switched between time perspectives. He grew up an Italian kid in the Bronx, a present-hedonist from a family of present-hedonists. School taught him to be more future-oriented, and when he got an untenured professorship at NYU he worked insanely hard, teaching dozens of courses at a time. And then one day Stanford calls and offers him a tenured professorship. (He puts a picture of the Stanford campus on the screen.) ‘Present hedonism, here I come!’ he thought. But when he tried the head of the department rebuked him. ‘Look at that picture again,’ he said. ‘Do you see any people? No, because they’re all inside working!’ (Indeed, the picture of Stanford on the screen has no people.)

For a long time I thought the time perspective thing was pretty meaningless, mostly tautological. It’s measured by asking people whether they disagree with statements like “When I listen to my favorite music, I lose all track of time” and so on (with agreement being evidence of present-hedonism). Then it’s no big surprise that present-hedonistic people tend to enjoy living in the moment and listening to music.

However, Zimbardo reveals some more experimental evidence that this time theory thing has some effect. He hypnotized people and told them to imagine their present expanding to take up their entire field. Afterwards, they behaved like extremely present-hedonistic people, much more open to their feelings, eventually rolling on the floor tickling each other. (Whether the students knew about Zimbardo’s concept of present-hedonism ahead of time, which would seem to be a key question, was unclear.)

To stimulate some present-hedonism in the future-oriented Stanford crowd, he closes off the lecture with a big party: hula hoops and bubble blowing and candy throwing. It’s actually pretty fun and I try to get into the spirit of things by smiling widely and literally skipping back to my dorm like a school girl. Surprisingly, it’s actually a whole lot of fun to skip and smile, especially when you look completely stupid doing it. I resolve to do more things that make me look stupid.

posted February 20, 2005 06:59 PM (Education) (3 comments) #


Stanford: Stand Up, Sell Out
Stanford: Voyeurism
Stanford: Meeting Dr. Zimbardo
Stanford: Anxiety
Stanford: Second-Grade Level
Phillip Zimbardo on Time Perspective
Stanford: Go, Team, Go!
Intellectual Diversity at Stanford
Stanford: Shocking
Stanford: Sanity
David Horowitz on Academic Freedom


Reading George Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By right now and he opens with a major discussion of how the ways we talk about time influence our decisions: time is money, time is a resource, time is moving. Impressive how much our mindset, shaped by culture, affects our decisions. You’d enjoy it if you haven’t read it already.

Stanford’s culture is definitely one of future planning; it’ll mess you up if you’re not careful. There’s much more to life…

posted by Bob at February 21, 2005 12:00 AM #

” I resolve to do more things that make me look stupid”

That’s good. Really. College is an excellent place for that, and you will likely will have lots of compatriots.

Kinda reminds me of this article: http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/index.php?m=20050213, as well as Eric Sink’s “Make More Mistakes” which you may have read.

Just like anything else, you have to have balance. Don’t forget the future, don’t forget the present.

Please remember that you will be much more likely to regret what you didn’t do than to regret what you did.

posted by Rich at February 25, 2005 11:41 AM #

I agree with you that Zimbardo are doing some pretty interesting stuff on time.

One of the guys which has influenced Zimbardos Time perspective is Kurt Lewine, and his field studies (1947 I think?), where he divides the human attention on time into past, present and the future. Heidegger is another.

The present is by far the best place to be, the problem is that it’s difficult making a career out of it.

By the way, I don’t mean to be pedantic but I think the term you are referring to as ‘past negative’ is actually ‘past positive’. ‘Past positive’ is a biased positive nostalgic view of the past i.e. the good old days. While the trait (it can be viewed kind of as a personality trait because it is somewhat stable) ‘past negative’ describes a person who tends to look at his past as something bad, and correlates with depression.

posted by Pal at March 3, 2005 12:31 PM #

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