Monday, November 24, 2014

Zimbardo & Boyd’s typology and questionnaire for assessing time perspectives — an STA-based critique (3rd of 4 posts)

This third post about Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd’s book The Time Paradox (2008) examines their methodology — their typology and questionnaire — for assessing time perspectives. As in other posts in this series, my purpose is to show that STA would be a better way to go, for theorists and strategists.

My dissection gets quite detailed in spots, especially in going through the dozens of questions they use to figure out how to categorize people’s time perspectives — so detailed that this post and its tediously unremitting refrain may interest few readers right now. Nonetheless, for me as well as for readers who may develop an interest in STA, rummaging through the details is worth doing, in order to continue showing that Zimbardo & Boyd’s approach conflates space, time, and action under the sole rubric of time perspectives.

* * * * *

Before I turn to critiquing Zimbardo & Boyd’s approach from an STA standpoint, I want to commend their book on other grounds.

I’d wish that all experts about space, time, and/or action orientations would provide typologies and questionnaires for analyzing people’s perspectives. But very few even provide a typology. And fewer still provide indicators, based on questionnaires or other methodologies, for sorting and ranking people’s space, time, or action orientations.

Of the few typologies I’ve seen over the years, most focused on time orientations. Perhaps that’s because our conventions for analyzing time are more settled than for space or action. Time orientations have been relatively easy to categorize in terms of conventions about past, present, and future (not to mention elaborations about cyclical vs. linear, secular progressive vs. millenarian). In contrast, there are also plenty of conventions about space (e.g., near/far, big/small, etc.), but they don’t seem nearly as amenable to being assembled into a general typology about people’s mindsets, though a few scholars have tried (e.g., Edward T. Hall). Likewise for action: its analysts also have sound conventions to work with (e.g., about efficacy and agency, including fatalism vs. instrumentalism), but they too seem difficult to disassemble and assemble into typologies. I rarely see a formal typology for categorizing people according to their action orientations (and right now I can’t recall a single one).

While typologies have been rare, questionnaires and other methodological tools for figuring out where people fit in a typology have been even rarer. Such tools crop up in efforts to assess specific psychiatric and neurological disorders, but not for analyzing the mindsets of general populations and their cultures. Of course, space-, time-, and action-related questions and scales crop up constantly in opinion polls about one issue or another, but that’s a different matter.

The fact that Zimbardo & Boyd provide both a typology and an inventory-questionnaire is thus strikingly unusual and to their credit. For good reason, as noted in Part 1, fellow psychologists Anna Sircova et al. concluded that “we can now strongly recommend these ZTPI versions as the “gold standard” for further research on time perspective, as well as its utility in cross-cultural comparisons” (2014: 9). That’s quite an achievement; I’ve not seen a comparable accolade for a space- or action-oriented methodology.

Against that background, I turn now to offering an STA-oriented assessment.

Zimbardo & Boyd’s typology: discussion + critique with STA in mind

As noted in Posts 1 and 2, Zimbardo and Boyd identify “six time perspectives: two past, two present, and two future” (52). These are said to be “the six most common time perspectives in the Western world” (62), found among individuals and cultures at large. The perspectives in their typology are called the:
• Past-negative
• Past-positive
• Present-fatalistic
• Present-hedonistic
• Future
• Transcendental-future
This typology derives from decades of field work. Their initial work emphasized the first five. The sixth — transcendental-future — was added later, partly to reflect the kinds of perspective they were encountering among religious people, including some terrorists.

While Zimbardo & Boyd regard these six as the most common (at least in the Western world), they also mention, rather apart, a seventh distinctive perspective called the “holistic present” (53). It reflects living one's life in the present moment while including past and future in an expanded state of consciousness about the present. It’s essentially the time perspective at the core of Zen Buddhism. Zimbardo & Boyd value it highly, but note that it is rarely found among people at large and requires lots of training to learn. So it’s not in their basic typology.

These six perspectives are said to be methodologically unrelated. In the authors’ methodology, a person’s score on one dimension is unrelated to his/her score on others (52). Thus different people may exhibit different blends of the six —i.e., rank high on one but low on another:
“When we describe the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of a specific time perspective, we are referring to a person who is high on that particular time perspective and relatively low on all others. In the real world, people can be high on multiple time perspectives, all of which interact.” (68)
Much of the book then offers separate chapters to discuss each of the six perspectives in turn — their good and bad correlates, and associations with psychological and cultural conditions. And that’s where it initially becomes evident that, while their typology focuses on time, space and action orientations are embedded throughout:
◊ For example, the chapter on past perspective says that “those who reported most involvement with their families were most likely to be highly past-positive” (97). Quite so. But from an STA standpoint, “involvement with families” is not about time — it’s a spatial matter that affects time (and action) perspectives.
◊ Next, the chapter on present perspectives says that “The development of a future orientation requires stability and consistency in the present, or people cannot make reasonable estimates of the future consequences of their actions” (100). But that stability may be more because of space or action than time conditions. Moreover, this chapter focuses partly on present-fatalists who are likely to believe nothing they do can make a difference to the future, that their place in life is set — e.g., as in believing that “My life path is controlled by forces I cannot influence” (107). Some people’s present-oriented fatalism may stem from religious beliefs about predestination or God’s will, while others’ fatalism may follow from a sense of subordination to people of power and privilege (108). Whatever, fatalism is not simply a time perspective; it is as much a space- and action- as a time-based belief — that’s what I think STA means.
◊ The chapter on future perspectives says that their development requires “a sense of personal efficacy”, including so that one can “influence the future by working hard in the present” (137). Quite so — but again, efficacy and working-hard are action orientations. This chapter also identifies ten conditions that make people more future-oriented — e.g., “Becoming educated” (140). But they are not all time-based conditions. Three seem more about space or action than time. For example, “Living in a stable family, society, nation” is a spatial condition, while “Using technology regularly” is an action condition.
And this conflation of space, time, and action under their time rubric continues when the book turns to broader analytic and therapeutic matters regarding their typology. In the chapter about “life choices” and “balancing the present and future,” Zimbardo & Boyd observe (219) that “Most people move through life among a group of people from whom they derive support, self-definition, and a sense of stability and continuity” — a kind of “convoy”. And they say that “Ideally, over time, we maintain those convoys that are most satisfying and discard or relegate to the periphery of our circle many, perhaps most, of our acquaintances.” These too are surely sound points, but I hasten to add that they are more space- than time-oriented. Their “convoy” is essentially a spatial construction that benefits peoples’ time and action orientations.

Still later, the book provides lists of steps people can take to increase their future orientation, improve their present orientation, and become more past-positive despite bad experiences (305-310). I’m not going to go through those lists here, but I would note that many steps look to be as much about one’s space or action orientation as one’s time orientation. Besides, Post 2 in this series already discussed the importance the authors give to achieving a balanced time perspective. It’s done by taking steps to exercise “control” — as these lists exemplify — and control is an action orientation, not a time perspective.

A critique of their typology + a contrast to a different typology

My critical refrain harps on Zimbardo & Boyd’s conflation of space, time, and action. I do so partly to show that no major writing by any author on any one of the three can avoid dealing with all three. And partly to urge, therefore, that STA (or something like it) will eventually be realized as the way to go, theoretically and strategically.

However, STA does not designate what a typology should look like. And I don’t see that STA could do so, at least not at this point. Even so, I do have some remarks about Zimbardo & Boyd’s typology, rather irrespective of STA. So I’ll offer them here as a bit of a digression.

Zimbardo & Boyd’s typology of six perspectives has evidently proven very serviceable for their and their colleagues’ purposes, for it is grounded on fieldwork using a tested methodology: i.e., their questionnaires (as discussed in detail below). But it seems to me, their typology has serious limitations, if not problems:
➤ Shouldn’t the typology recognize a “deep past” perspective, as a functional equivalent of their transcendental future category? The deep past is about culture and history; it’s about people who take the long-ago heavily into account, as many tribal and tribalized people do. Zimbardo & Boyd’s layout (and perhaps their questionnaire) seems lacking in this regard, for it emphasizes people’s personal pasts, and does so mostly for those parts of the world where the deep past may not figure strongly.
➤ Why no “instrumental present” perspective? The authors claim only that “People can be oriented to the present in three ways: as present hedonists, present fatalists, and present holists” (105). But that seems awfully limited. People who are not fatalists are not necessarily hedonists or holists. Most, I’d suppose, have instrumental views about the present. Of course, Zimbardo & Boyd implicitly recognize this via their emphasis on the importance of efficacy and control. And they might say that people who rank low on present fatalism correspond implicitly to present instrumentalists. They even state that “As we look further into the future, we are forced to do more in the present” (45). But still, why not make it an explicit entry in their typology (even though it’d spell another conflation of time and action, for instrumentalism is as much an action orientation as fatalism)?
➤ I remain puzzled at seeing just a singular future, followed by a singular transcendental future. Their typology offers a positive and negative variant about the past, somewhat positive and negative variants about the present (using narrower notions), but nothing so varied about the future. What’s paramount in Zimbardo & Boyd’s methodology is that people have a future perspective. I’d agree. But it makes a significant difference, does it not — as significant as for people’s past and present perspectives — whether the future is viewed with gloom or hope, as an instrumental or fatalistic future, as a linear or extraordinary non-linear future? (Indeed, might not some people be instrumental about the present but fatalistic about the future?)
➤ Finally, at first glance their typology, though presented as a list, looks like it implies a rectangular 3 x 2 matrix, with past, present, and future on one side, and a positive vs. negative axis along the framing side. In a TED talk (2009), Zimbardo affirms as much when he says that there are two ways — and he only says “two ways” — to be oriented to the past, the present, and the future, with people empasizing either a future or a future-transcendental perspective. But of course, a rectangular matrix isn’t really the case, especially given how the authors treat each future in singular terms. Thus I end up seeing the typology looking more like a pyramid — with a broad spectrum of positive vs. negative pasts at the base, a narrower spectrum of possible presents spanning the middle of the pyramid, and then a peak composed of two stacked categories about the future. Something seems off here. I can’t quite figure out what, but it adds to my sense that this typology, as it stands, will turn out to be too limited for broader theorizing and strategizing. It seems more suited to therapy than to theory.
[UPDATE: December 3, 2014 — I am informed (h/t Anna Sircova) that Swedish researchers have already urged that the future time perspective be modified to recognize positive and negative variants:
“The future is nevertheless not only a temporal space for goal-setting and positive expectations, it may also be associated with fear, uncertainty and anxiety, which may ultimately have detrimental effects on both mental and physical health. Here we present the outline for the Swedish ZTPI (S-ZTPI) which extends the original ZTPI by separating the Future dimension into two sub-factors: The Future Positive scale and the Future Negative scale. We argue that separating the future into two separate dimensions thus comprehending both a positive and a negative valence of the future, adds important information regarding association between future time perspective and subjective well-being.” (source: Maria Grazia Carelli, Britt Wiberg,Elisabeth Åström, “Broadening the TP Profile: Future Negative Time Perspective,” in Maciej Stolarski, Nicolas Fieulaine, Wessel van Beek (Eds.), Time Perspective Theory; Review, Research and Application (2015, Ch. 5, pp. 87-97).
Such a modification would help attend to my concerns.]
➤ A final aside: Their typology does not include some of the more exotic and interesting possible perspectives that may arise — such as “explosive time” (see below). Nor does their typology engage a possibility that Zimbardo & Boyd mention in their 1999 paper — “temporal disintegration” — whereby distressed people feel that “the present is isolated from the past and future” (1999: 1285). It isn’t necessary for a typology to cover all such possibilities, so long as they can figure in the discussion, and do not undermine the typology in any major way. On these grounds, Zimbardo & Boyd’s typology is fairly safe, but their discussion still seems to be missing lots of variations.
Despite my criticisms, I’m not prepared to propose an alternative typology. I’m also far from prepared to post a survey of others analysts’ typologies. But I do have one handy that has long impressed and puzzled me. It’s by French sociologist Georges Gurvitch, a colleague of Henri Lefebvre, who wrote a lot about both space and time orientations. Perhaps digressing to recall his typology can provide a stimulating counterpoint here.

Gurvitch argued that every social class, group, and sector within a society tends “to operate in a time proper to itself” — so much so that he would characterize social classes more by their subjective time orientations than by their objective economic conditions. I don’t know whether Gurvitch’s work is familiar to Zimbardo or Boyd. Yet they too associate class with time, saying that “Social class is both a contributor to and a consequence of time perspective.” Accordingly, less educated people are more likely to live in the present; future orientation is a prerequisite for membership in the middle class; and rich or upper-class people “can afford to take any time perspective they want.” (101)

Interesting as that is — and it is worthy of further consideration — all I really want to fit into my post here is Gurvitch’s elaborate typology. It’s not exactly a formal typology, but it’s close enough to provide a curious contrast to Zimbardo & Boyd’s. What Gurvitch (1963, 1964) does is distinguish eight kinds of social time, associating them with different historical eras as well as different modes of political control and social structure. In brief, these eight are:
• Enduring Time: time of slowed down long duration,
• Deceptive Time,
• Erratic Time: time of irregular pulsation between the appearance and disappearance of rhythms,
• Cyclical Time,
• Retarded Time,
• Alternating Time: time alternating between delay and advance,
• Time in advance of itself or time pushing forward,
• Explosive Time.
Whereas Zimbardo & Boyd focus mainly on individual perspectives, Gurvitch is concerned with large social formations. Whereas Zimbardo & Boyd work to separate past, present, and future perspectives, Gurvitch emphasizes different ways in which they may be all mixed together in people’s minds. And whereas Zimbardo & Boyd distinguish between the ordinary future and the transcendental future, Gurvitch identifies various future perspectives in colorful terms that, at least in my view, seem more appropriate for characterizing some of the more radical and even millenarian views people hold today. The two I’d point out by Gurvitch (1963: 178) are:
“7. … what I shall call time in advance of itself. … The future becomes present. Such is the time of collective effervescence, of aspiration toward ideals and values, of collective acts of decision and innovation.
“8. Finally, as the eighth and last kind I shall point out explosive time, which dissolves the present as well as the past in the creation of the future immediately transcended. … Such a time is that of collective acts of creation which always play some role in social life but which arise from beneath the surface and become open and dominant during revolutions. … When it is real, explosive time places the global and partial social structures before complicated dilemmas, for it carries the maximum risk and demands the maximum effort to overcome it.”
[From Georges Gurvitch, “Social Structure and the Multiplicity of Times,” in Edward A. Tiryakian, ed., Sociological Theory, Values, and Sociocultural Change: Essays in Honor of Pitirim A Sorokin, New York: Harper & Row, 1963, pp. 171-184. Also, Georges Gurvitch, The Spectrum of Social Time, Dordrecht, Holland: R. Reidel Publishing Co., 1964, pp. 31-33.]
I’m not proposing that Gurvitch’s typology is better than Zimbardo & Boyd’s — theirs is much better suited to their purposes. But Gurvitch’s provides a useful contrast. It is so different, I’m supposing, that it helps in trying to show that theorists are still a long way from figuring out how best to typologize time perspectives (not to mention space and action too).

But that’s enough of a digression. Back to The Time Paradox in terms of my primary refrain.

Zimbardo & Boyd’s assessment tools: the ZTPI and TFTPI

Zimbardo & Boyd developed their “yardstick” questionnaires — the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (ZTPI), and the Transcendental-Future Time Perspective Inventory (TFTPI) —in the 1990s (51). Both inventories appeared in their 1999 paper, and are also in this 2008 book, as well as posted at its website (here and here). Over the years, the questionnaires have been administered to more than 10,000 people.

An STA-based look at the ZTPI:  The ZTPI consists of fifty-six field-tested questions. People are asked to rate each question — in a five-wide range, from very untrue through very true — and the ratings are tallied to determine how that person’s time perspectives are distributed across the six typology categories (53-55). A rather nifty design.

Most ZTPI questions are entirely about time. For example, “4. I often think of what I should have done differently in my life.” Or, “46. I find myself getting swept up in the excitement of the moment.”

But from an STA viewpoint, many ZTPI questions seem more about space and action than time. By my count, four questions are mainly about spatial orientations, thirteen about action orientations. This means that about a third of the ZTPI questions are about space and action more than time. It may also mean that the ZTPI is part way to becoming an STA-oriented questionnaire — but it would still need a lot of work and revision to serve as such.

The four ZTPI questions that I would rank as being more about space than time — because they’re about subjects, objects, and their relationships — are:
“1. I believe that getting together with one's friends to party is one of life's important pleasures.”
“5. My decisions are mostly influenced by people and things around me.”
“49. I like family rituals and traditions that are regularly repeated.”
“55. I like my close relationships to be passionate.”
The thirteen ZTPI questions I would code as being more about action than time — because they are directed at attitudes regarding efficacy, agency, control, or means — are as follows:
“3. Fate determines much in my life.”
“6. I believe that a person's day should be planned ahead each morning.”
“8. I do things impulsively.”
“10. When I want to achieve something, I set goals and consider specific means for reaching those goals.”
“14. Since whatever will be will be, it doesn't really matter what I do.”
“24. I take each day as it is rather than try to plan it out.”
“13. Before making a decision, I weigh the costs against the benefits.”
“31. Taking risks keeps my life from becoming boring.”
“37. You can't really plan for the future because things change so much.”
“38. My life path is controlled by forces I cannot influence.”
“44. I often follow my heart more than my head.”
“51. I keep working at difficult, uninteresting tasks if they will help me get ahead.”
“53. Often luck pays off better than hard work.”
An STA-based look at the TFTPI: Zimbardo & Boyd’s TFTPI consists of a separate list of ten question (60). They are used to assess a person’s attitudes about a transcendental-future.

But again I’d say that STA implies a rethinking. Three of the TFTPI’s ten questions seem more about space than time, and one seems more about action. For example, “2. My body is just a temporary home for the real me” is basically spatial. And “8. I will be held accountable for my actions on earth when I die” seems mainly an action orientation.

Wrapping up this post: reiterating my pro-STA refrain

In sum, Zimbardo & Boyd’s methodology — their typology and the two questionnaires for inventorying people’s attitudes — is not strictly about time perspectives. Space and action orientations are embedded throughout.

That said, I’m tiring of this tedious post, and I may never know for sure whether digging into so many details is worth the effort. But hopefully it has served my pro-STA purpose: to show — as I already wrote  up front in Part 1 — that a major writing about space, time, or action perspectives, besides dwelling on its avowed focus (in this case, time), turns to say something about all three STA orientations. Indeed, there is no way for major writings to avoid doing so. Thus they help verify that space, time, and action orientations operate together as a bundle — a set of interrelated cognitive-knowledge elements that no mind or culture can do without.

In other words, from an STA stance, these theorists are not just writing about their specialty — be that space, time, or action. Rather, they are studying a systematic mental and cultural complex comprised of all three orientations — but they’re doing it narrowly and unknowingly from their specialized angle.

The more we learn about analyzing people’s space, time, and action orientations, the more we shall realize that they are so thoroughly interlaced, even fused, in our minds and cultures that they form an essential cognitive module. That’s the big picture. And if I’m right about that, its unfolding will matter not only across academic disciplines but also to real-world strategists of all stripes.

I look forward to a time when other theorists and analysts will think likewise. Meanwhile, onward to the fourth and final post about Zimbardo & Boyd’s book — a post about terrorist mindsets.


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