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.