Time Orientation

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Time Orientation


For centuries scientists and philosophers have been interested in the question of how the meaning of time is constructed and how peoples thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are shaped by time-related considerations. In the Critique of Pure Reason, for instance, Immanuel Kant (1781) provides an outline of the psychological significance of time. Thus time perception is an innate ability that shapes the way people perceive the world. The emphasis on innateness, however, does not imply lack of variability across individuals. Indeed most scientists and philosophers in the early twenty-first century concur that time is a social phenomenon that is likely to be perceived and experienced differently across individuals, situations, and cultures.

Another source of inspiration for contemporary theorizing on time is the work of Kurt Lewin (1951). According to Lewin, to understand the behavior of an individual at a given time, it is necessary to consider all the forces acting on the person at that time, including past experiences in similar situations as well as his or her expectations about the future. In line with this reasoning, most models of self-regulation maintain that influences on goal pursuit can be partitioned into three time frames, namely past experiences, present considerations, and expectations about the future . For instance, according to Albert Banduras (1997) self-efficacy theory, considerations about the past, present, and future are all consequential in determining peoples beliefs about whether or not they can perform a behavior. Thus when people engage in a goal-driven activity, relevant past experiences as well as expectations about the future can be brought to the current stream of consciousness and affect the way they pursue their goals.

Considerations about time come into picture when people make decisions as well. Many decisions in everyday life involve a trade-off between the immediate and the delayed consequences of actions. An employee receiving a bonus, for instance, may be torn between saving this bonus for retirement (delayed gratification) and spending it right away for vacation (immediate gratification). Confronting such a dilemma, some people focus on the immediate consequences of their actions (present-time orientation) and choose to spend the bonus for vacation; others are more concerned about the delayed outcomes of their actions (future-time orientation) and choose to add this bonus to the retirement fund. If people prefer one type of orientation over another repeatedly, these preferences may translate into habits or traitlike individual differences, which can in turn serve as cognitive biases toward being past, present, or future oriented.

Indeed various constructs have been proposed to address such differences in time orientations. For instance, the construct of consideration of future consequences (CFC) refers to the extent to which people consider the potential distant outcomes of their current behaviors and the extent to which they are influenced by these potential outcomes (Strathman et al. 1994, p. 743). Thus individuals low in CFC pay greater attention to the immediate consequences of their behaviors than to the delayed consequences of their behaviors. Individuals high in CFC, in contrast, pay greater attention to the delayed outcomes of their behaviors. The implications of CFC have been explored in a variety of contexts. For instance, future orientation has been consistently related to academic achievement, conscientiousness, less risk taking (e.g., safe sex), greater general concern with health and the environment (e.g., exercise frequently, consume less alcohol and tobacco, recycle), and more responsible consumption practices (e.g., less impulse buying). In line with this, present-time orientation has been shown to predict self-regulatory failures in a wide range of contexts. Presumably resisting temptations in a given context requires the ability to transcend that context, which is something future-oriented people seem more capable of doing than present-oriented people (for a review, see Strathman and Joireman 2005).

The fact that future orientation has been related to many positive consequences suggests that it may be the preferred time orientation. Indeed interventions have been designed to enhance future-time orientation and decrease present-time orientation. According to Philip G. Zimbardo and John N. Boyd (1999), however, encouraging people to focus on the future at the expense of the present time may not be a fruitful strategy because life is lived in the present. Focusing too much on the future may lead people to miss out on the meaning of life. Thus a balanced time orientation, where people flexibly switch temporal frames depending on self-regulatory resources, situational pressures, and personal appraisals, may prove to be more adaptive than a time orientation that is exclusively biased in one direction. The implication is that somebody can be high on both present-time and future-time orientations. Thus unidimensional scales may fall short of capturing the complexity of time orientation.

SEE ALSO Bandura, Albert; Discounted Present Value; Expectations; Farsightedness; Interest Rates; Lewin, Kurt; Risk; Scales; Self-Control; Self-Efficacy; Time Preference; Zimbardo, Philip


Bandura, Albert. 1997. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control . New York: W. H. Freeman.

Kant, Immanuel. 1965. Critique of Pure Reason . Trans. Norman Kemp Smith. New York: St. Martins. (Orig. pub. 1781.)

Lewin, Kurt. 1951. Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers, ed. Dorwin Cartwright. New York: Harper.

Strathman, Alan, Faith Gleicher, David Boninger, and C. Scott Edwards. 1994. The Consideration of Future Consequences: Weighing Immediate and Distant Outcomes of Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 66: 742752.

Strathman, Alan, and Jeff Joireman, eds. 2005. Understanding Behavior in the Context of Time: Theory, Research, and Application . Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Zimbardo, Philip G., and John N. Boyd. 1999. Putting Time in Perspective: A Valid, Reliable Individual-Differences Metric. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77: 12711288.

Zeynep Cemalcilar

G. Tarcan Kumkale