The New Psychology of Time

The Time Paradox, a new book by Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd, puts forth an intriguing argument — our attitudes toward time, often unconscious ones, can strongly shape our personalities and the kind of lives we lead. They can contribute to our happiness and success, or our unhappiness and depression.

The argument goes something like this: Not entirely knowingly, we all focus on the past, present or future. And, in moderation, each focus can have some net good. Future-oriented people tend to be ambitious and successful; present-oriented people tend to have friends and fun; and past-oriented people often have close family relationships. But when we associate too strongly with one of these “time zones” (again often without realizing it), we run into problems. When we’re too strongly focused on the future, we sacrifice friends, family and fun. When we’re too present-oriented, we leave ourselves open to hedonism and addictions. And when we cling to the past, we simply get stuck in the past, and depression usually follows. The upshot then is that we need to find a “temporal balance,” and this applies not just to individuals, but to nations, religious groups and social classes as well. According to Zimbardo and Boyd, larger social groups can tend toward distorted senses of time. The American financial crisis boils down to an extreme focus on the present, or a lack of concern for future consequences. That’s essentially what the big credit giveaway was all about.

You may recognize Philip Zimbardo’s name. He’s a widely recognized psychology professor who was behind the famous Stanford Prison Experiment (1971). He has served as the president of the American Psychological Association. And, last year, he published The Lucifer Effect, a New York Times bestseller.

To delve a bit more deeply into The Time Paradox, you should watch (below) the engrossing presentation that Zimbardo gave at Google’s HQ last month. Or you can listen to this radio interview that aired recently in New York City (iTunes Feed MP3). Lastly, you can take a survey on The Time Paradox web site and learn more about your temporal balance.


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