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.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Zimbardo & Boyd’s time-perspective themes about balance and control versus STA’s design preferences (2nd of 4 posts)

This post continues a string of efforts to assess selected readings about space, time, and/or action perspectives. In this instance, it’s my second post about Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd’s book The Time Paradox (2008).

Among other matters, this post concerns Zimbardo & Boyd’s emphasis on learning to control one’s time perspectives. Such control may well be advisable, but they view it as an attribute of one’s time perspective. Thus they conflate time and action orientations, and subsume action under their dominant interest, time. However, from the standpoint of STA, “control” is an action orientation, not a time orientation. STA argues for treating time and action (and space) orientations separately, for theoretic and strategic purposes — the better to recognize their independence and their interaction in shaping cognition, consciousness, and culture.

* * * * *

As noted in the Part-1 post about Zimbardo & Boyd’s book The Time Paradox, their typology identifies six key time perspectives:
• Past-negative
• Past-positive
• Present-fatalistic
• Present-hedonistic
• Future
• Transcendental-future
Apropos this typology, the book lays out, chapter by chapter, what past-, present-, future-, and transcendentally-oriented people are like, and what benefits and costs, strengths and weaknesses, good and bad effects may accompany each of these perspectives.

The authors make lots of interesting points about each of the six — for my interests, especially about the significance of future orientations. For example, they observe that future-oriented people tend to be more successful, whereas present-oriented people tend to be more helpful toward others (19) — an observation I’ve not seen before. Furthermore, they note, “The success of Western civilization in the past centuries can be traced to the prevalence of the future orientation of many populations” (137) — a point often made by many scholars.

I may include more about their perspective-by-perspective discussion in the next posts (and I may finally take issue with their typology as well). But here I want to focus only on two over-arching analytic and therapeutic themes that suffuse their book. The first is about the importance of developing a balanced time perspective. The second is about making an effort to control one’s time perspective.

Importance of having a balanced time-perspective profile

Zimbardo & Boyd show that each of the six perspectives may have benefits, some much more than others. They also show that the costs associated with any one perspective may rise sharply if it is held in excess, and/or if it is out of balance with others of the six. Many of the book’s examples involve disturbed persons (e.g., addicts). But it also offers valuable more-general observations too. Here’s one that caught my eye: In discussing the faults of some executives who’d been running risky mortgage businesses not long ago, the authors find that “lack of balance between present and future orientations in both business and government is a well-worn path to disaster.” (268) This is all in keeping with the theme, mentioned in Part 1, that “Viewing the world through one time perspective may result in success, while another may lead to failure.” (14).

As a result, Zimbardo & Boyd urge their readers to develop an “optimally balanced time perspective”:
“The ideal we want you to develop is a balanced time perspective in place of a narrowly focused single time zone. A balanced time perspective will allow you to flexibly shift from past to present to future in response to the demands of the situation facing you so that you can make optimal decisions.” (26)
“[D]eveloping a balanced time perspective will change your life for the better. Moderate levels of future and present hedonism blended with a solid dose of past positive is the ideal we propose. Flexibly shifting among time perspectives in response to the demands of situations you find yourself in allows you to get the most from your time.” (319)
To be more precise, “the optimal time perspective profile” they recommend would be (and I quote):
• High in past-positive time perspective
• Moderately high in future time perspective
• Moderately high in present-hedonistic time perspective
• Low in past-negative time perspective
• Low in present-fatalistic time perspective (297)
This is the blend that serves best to give people a sense of having “roots”, “wings”, and “energy” (297). In the authors’ view, nothing good comes out of having much in the way of past-negative and present-fatalistic time perspectives (298). Meanwhile, a person’s future time perspective, which is so crucial to the optimal profile, should contain a hopefulness that is “tempered with realism not conflated with fantasy” (152).

This all seems to make considerable sense. And I’d imagine that STA, if ever fully theorized, could result in identifying optimal space and action perspectives too — something no space or action theorists have done, to my knowledge.

Nonetheless, from an STA standpoint, Zimbardo & Boyd’s argument is problematic. For their approach urges people to control their time perspective, and treats such control (or its lack) as an aspect of one’s time perspective. But is “control” more a time or an action orientation? I’d say the latter. The assumption that people can change their time orientation is an action orientation, not a time orientation.

Importance of learning to control one’s time perspective

For both theoretic and therapeutic reasons, The Time Paradox urges people to learn to control their time perspectives and the attitudes behind them. Zimbardo & Boyd want their work to help orient (or re-orient) people so that they avoid succumbing to negative past experiences and presentist fatalism, and build positive future outlooks.
“If our project succeeds, you will learn how to transform negative experiences into positive ones and how to capitalize on the positives in the present and the future.” (6)
As the authors repeatedly note, time orientations are learned — thus they can be controlled. They want people to “have some control over the frames of reference in which we view time”; and to “develop mental flexibility and agility in choosing the time perspective that is most advantageous” (15). They emphasize this evermore strongly as the book proceeds:
“We don't mean for you to be Pollyanna–ish in your optimism, but when you have control over your present, you can control your past and your future. In fact, you can reinterpret and rewrite your personal past, which can give you a greater sense of control over the future. In fact, all of psychotherapy can be seen as an attempt to work through the present to gain control over the past and thereby the future.” (20)
“You can change and modify your time perspective to become more balanced and free yourself from learned biases that prevent you from realizing your fullest potential.” (102)
“Related to our conception of a balanced time perspective is the idea that time competence is a necessary component of a self-actualizing personality.” (311)
“The single most important thing that you can do to enhance the quality of your life is to trade in an old, biased time perspective for a new, optimally balanced one.” (311)
Zimbardo & Boyd associate control capabilities mainly with the future time perspective. Thus, when they show that “Many factors are involved in the creation and maintenance of a given time perspective” (143), they point to “impulse control” as one of the “behavioral characteristics” that favors the inculcation of a future time orientation (144). Indeed, they generally associate having a sense of personal agency/ efficacy/ control with positive future orientations:
“But that can-do sense does not develop fully if one is present-oriented. Without it, people doubt that they can change anything for the better. They become resigned to what is what is and do not strive to create a better what could be.” (103)
In discussing how people can convert negative perceptions of the past into more neutral if not positive views, they recognize that change is never easy, but insist the gains can be worth the pains. For some troubled or despair-riven people, even achieving small changes may matter hugely for helping to preserve one’s sense of freedom, responsibility, and dignity:
“The message here is that small changes in the environment can affect mental states, which in turn affect physical states. It is vital to sustain a sense of personal agency in which you make meaningful choices about all aspects of your life.” (241)
Throughout the book, they counsel moderation, avoiding being extreme, as one tries to reshape his or her time perspectives.

Wrap-up comment + a closing aside (shades of Albert Bandura?)

My critical refrain remains intact: The Time Paradox makes lots of good points about people’s time perspectives. Nonetheless, in my STA view, an analyst could substitute space or action for much of what they say about time, and the book’s points would still make good sense.

Furthermore, if Zimbardo & Boyd’s book had said more about efficacy concepts and clarified their relation to time perspectives, I’d be happier, but probably still not satisfied. For, as I keep saying, STA means treating time and action orientations separately, though interactively.

Zimbardo & Boyd are so intent on fitting control (efficacy, agency) perspectives under (or into) time perspectives that I wonder about their disposition toward the earlier work of an emeritus luminary colleague of theirs in Stanford’s psychology department, Albert Bandura, who was renowned for his writings about “self-efficacy” (book) and “social cognitive theory” (book). I can’t be sure, but it’s as though Zimbardo & Boyd have tried to absorb his work into (or under) their own. I even spotted one place where Bandura refers to control paradoxes, rather like the way Zimbardo & Boyd refer to time paradoxes.

I’ve turned to learn a little about Bandura only very recently, prompted in part by a citation in Zimbardo & Boyd’s 1999 article. They don’t cite him in the 2008 book (at least not where I can find), but his work appears to be pioneering for understanding the centrality of individual and collective efficacy concepts for how people think and act and how societies perform. In a way, efficacy is for him what space is for Lefebvre and time for Zimbardo & Boyd. Bandura may even make a good choice for my next series of posts about STA’s action orientation. His topic — people’s beliefs about efficacy/ agency/ influence/ control/ ability to be effective and achieve goals — is pretty much the same as STA’s action orientation.


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[As a further aside, I’d note that Stanford’s psychology department appears to be the top place for studying social cognition nowadays. For in addition to Zimbardo, Boyd, and Bandura, I’ve learned that yet another social psychologist there, Carol Dweck, is renowned for research, teaching, and writing in this area, notably by way of her popular book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006). The “mindset” word in her title piqued my hopeful attention, because STA is directed at mindset/ mindframe/ mindfield analysis (e.g., as discussed here). But her work appears to be mainly about a specific concern: fixed versus adaptive styles of intelligence. I don’t see that this has much to do with space, time, or action orientations per se, though it may have implications worth pursuing later along the way to theorizing STA.]

[UPDATE — November 15, 2014: Introductory paragraphs added, partly to highlight up front a key finding for the benefit of some readers who may be interested in STA.]

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Reading with STA in mind: Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd’s The Time Paradox (1st of 4 posts)

As I’ve said before, the framework I’d like to see developed about people's space-time-action orientations (STA) continues to have potential. But while I’ve written various posts about STA (beginning here and here), it’s potential remains underdeveloped, for I’ve lagged in laying it out.

Hence these three series of posts built around selected literature reviews. The first series, in April and May, reviewed a classic book about social space: Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space. This second series focuses on a recent book about time perspectives: Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd’s The Time Paradox. A third series will concern a writing about people’s action (efficacy, agency, instrumental willpower) orientations.

These posts are less about the books themselves than about a purpose that serves STA: to show that each writing, besides dwelling on its avowed focus (be that space, time, or action), turns to say something about all three STA orientations. Indeed, there is no way for major writings to avoid doing so. Thus they confirm 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.

As for Zimbardo & Boyd’s book, this Part-1 post provides an overview of its significance and begins to identify key themes. Part 2 continues the discussion of key themes, focusing on their recommendations for people to develop balanced time perspectives by learning to control their time perspectives. I’ll argue, on behalf of STA, that “control” is an action orientation, not a time orientation.

Part 3 will focus on the methodological core of their work: their typology of time perspectives, and their evaluative questionnaire. I’ll show that their typology is insufficient, and that their questionnaire (or inventory) is as much about space and action as it is about time. Part 4 will focus on their observations about the time perspectives of terrorists; and I’ll propose that STA is better suited to that challenge. Throughout, I deploy a critical refrain that soon becomes evident below. (To ease reading, I reference page numbers in parentheses without putting “p.” or “pp.” in front.)

I want to note up front here, before I turn relentlessly critical on STA’s behalf, that The Time Paradox is very interesting and well-worth reading on its own merits.

* * * * *

The book’s significance and influence

Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd’s The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life (2008) is a significant interesting psychological study in the guise of a self-help therapy book. Both authors are social psychologists at Stanford University — Zimbardo being famous (and infamous) for the Stanford Prison Study — who have become foundational leaders in their field. Their stature stems originally from their 1999 article: “Putting Time in Perspective: A Valid, Reliable Individual-Difference Metric,” The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It presented their early findings about what types of time-perspectives people have, and how to diagnose them with tools the authors devised: the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (ZTPI), and the Transcendental-Future Time Perspective Inventory (TFTPI). This 2008 book summarizes and advances their findings from decades of research.

The theoretical and methodological core of their work is a typology that identifies “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”, found among individuals as well as cultures at large (62). The time perspectives in their typology are called:
• Past-negative
• Past-positive
• Present-fatalistic
• Present-hedonistic
• Future
• Transcendental-future
My next posts will have more to say about this typology and the associated inventories. For now, I just want to emphasize that their 1999 paper and this 2008 book have inspired a lot of follow-up work by other social psychologists who study time perspectives. For example, one multi-authored paper — Anna Sircova et al., “A Global Look at Time: A 24-Country Study of the Equivalence of the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory,” SAGE Open (2014) — finds:
“Therefore, 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.” (9)
More to the point, colleagues of Zimbardo & Boyd established the International Research Network on Time Perspective in 2007, for such purposes as holding international conferences, promoting collaborative projects, and providing advice to researchers. It now has over 200 members around the world. Plus, it is behind a forthcoming multi-authored book titled Time Perspective Theory; Review, Research and Application: Essays in Honor of Philip G. Zimbardo (2015).

That amounts to a lot of recently institutionalized influence. Far more than I knew about when I chose to read their book. Which leads me to figure that my STA-oriented criticisms, which grew as I read the book, will not be welcome (if noticed at all). No matter, I’m here to lay groundwork for advancing STA over the long term.

How the authors became interested in time perspectives

The authors recount how childhood experiences help explain their interest in time. Zimbardo’s formative experience involved being quarantined in a hospital for five months, because he was ill with whooping cough (71-73). For a while he was even confined under an oxygen tent. Meanwhile, he’d form friendships with other ill kids there, only to see many quickly vanish due to death. Boyd’s childhood tale was about living first in an uninhabited forested area in South Lake Tahoe, then moving to Los Angeles — thereby going from “remoteness and isolation” to “hustle and bustle”, so disconcertingly that he’d sometimes spend kindergarten recess perched up a tree in the schoolyard, peering around alone (24-25). Boyd also notes that, when he was a teenager, his parents’ divorce further jarred his future expectations.

The authors interpret their experiences in terms of time: How they turned to think about their own past, present, and future perspectives. How they learned not to dwell on one perspective at the expense of another. How they worked at “reframing” the negative aspects of their past experiences, so as to reinforce positive hopes for the future. Thus, they observe, people can learn to control the effects of past experiences on their present and future time perspectives.

But from an STA stance, their formative experiences do not look to be primarily about time. They’re about space more than time, for both accounts revolve around spatial compressions and expansions, as well as inter-personal connections and disconnections. Of course, these spatial experiences affected their time orientations; but those effects are derivative, and do not mean that making everything fit under time is the optimal way to go. Furthermore, their point about learning to “control” their time perspectives reflects STA’s action element — it’s a point about personal agency and efficacy, more than time.

In other words, beginning with their analyses of their childhood experiences, much of what the authors claim to be about time is more about space or action, or a blend. This will become my constant critical pro-STA refrain throughout the posts comprising this review.

The book’s view of time’s significance — the paradox theme

The book’s theme is said to be a set of paradoxes, which the authors summarize at the book’s website as follows:
“The Time Paradox is not a single paradox but a series of paradoxes that shape our lives and our destinies. For example:
“Paradox 1: Time is one of the most powerful influences on our thoughts, feelings, and actions, yet we are usually totally unaware of the effect of time in our lives.
“Paradox 2: Each specific attitude toward time — or time perspective — is associated with numerous benefits, yet in excess each is associated with even greater costs.
“Paradox 3: Individual attitudes toward time are learned through personal experience, yet collectively attitudes toward time influence national destinies.” (source — slightly reformatted)
Technically, I don’t see that these really are paradoxes; the third surely isn’t. I’m also not sure they are accurate. Most analysts recognize that time matters greatly, and that people can get disoriented by dwelling excessively on the past or the future. Even so, the notion of paradox provides an enticing theme, and the authors do not rely on it too much.

Besides, paradoxes or not, the authors really do want readers to become more aware of time’s significance, to achieve balanced time perspectives, and to realize time’s importance for entire cultures and societies as well as individuals. Thus, the book implicitly transforms these three paradoxes into maxims.

But I hasten to add my refrain from an STA perspective: Space or action could be substituted for time in these paradoxes/maxims, and they’d still be valid. Moreover, they’d also be true — in my view, truer — if they were about “space-time-action” rather than “time” alone. To see what I mean and judge for yourself, just try substituting STA for time in each of the paradoxes above (though Paradox 2 might need a little re-wording).

Time’s significance for people, culture, and society — toward a new science of time

Above all, Zimbardo & Boyd aim to lay out a “new science and psychology of time.” They want to show how time works, why time matters, and how individuals can improve their lives by changing their time perspectives (6, 18). Indeed, their book “is about living life fully” (21). Yet, while psychology is their focus, the book also says a little — not enough for my interests, but at least a little — about history, culture, philosophy, and grand theory.

As for how and why time matters so much, Zimbardo & Boyd “have consistently found that time perspective plays a fundamental role in the way people live” (18). Indeed, Zimbardo is “more convinced than ever that time perspective is one of the most powerful influences on human thought, feeling, and action — and the least recognized or appreciated” (24). Thus one’s time perspective is a key determinant of how well one does in life; for “Viewing the world through one time perspective may result in success, while another may lead to failure” (14). And it’s not simply an individual matter — society may deem one perspective to be right, but not another (14).

As they point out, people are not born with a particular time perspective — they learn it. For “our time perspectives are not determined by nature or by some cosmic clock setter, but are learned ways of relating to our physical, biological, social, and cultural environments” (119). At first, babies are present-oriented; then, people learn to develop into past-, present-, and/or future-oriented adults, depending on conditions (139). And adults can learn to modify their time perspectives:
“We believe that your individual attitude toward time is largely learned, and that you generally relate to time in an unconscious, subjective manner — and that, as you become more conscious of your attitude on time, you can change your perspective for the better.” (18)
Against this background, the book provides a sketchy retrospective on the evolution of time perspectives — past, present, future, and transcendental-future — showing that how people come to have particular time perspectives has varied across history, as have what kinds of perspectives are best suited to particular societal conditions. While there may be better books about such matters, Zimbardo & Boyd do make good points when they broaden their analysis beyond the individual level to address “the shared culture of time in which we live” (7). They note that time perspectives can shape national cultures and destinies as well as individual psychologies (133), to such a degree that “communal time perspectives have determined the fate of nations” (318). They also note that “questions about time are in fact questions about the meaning of life” (11), for “Time lies at the heart of what it is to be human” (315) — another of the book’s passing waves at culture and philosophy. (Their 1999 article noted that time orientations form part of people’s “cognitive scaffolding” — a concept I wish they’d elaborated in this book, but perhaps it’s too academic a concept for a popularized text.)

Such points resonate with STA. Yet, I feel I should object that their approach to analyzing the modern era seems exceedingly utilitarian and economistic. According to their historical sketch, the “transition from event time to clock time profoundly changed society, especially economic relations” (38), making time evermore like a currency or a commodity. Those are valid points — indeed, Henri Lefebvre makes similar points in criticizing the commodification of space and time under capitalism (here). But Zimbardo & Boyd then go all-out in urging people to adopt a decidedly utilitarian view about the significance and use of time in the modern era.

They repeatedly treat time as a scarce commodity: “our most valuable possession” (8), “the medium in which we live our lives” (12), and “the currency – the very foundation — of social life” (38). They affirm that “Another economic principle relevant to our discussion of a new science of time is the concept of opportunity costs” (11). And they urge readers to learn to “invest” time wisely, and to “choose to construe the world in the way that is most productive, given our needs and resources” (13).

I can’t tell whether this is how the authors truly think, or whether it’s a tone they deem appropriate for a popular mass-market self-help book in today’s environment. Whatever the reason, their ensuing analysis, chapter by chapter, is largely about costs and benefits that attend each of the six time perspectives in their typology.

I’m not implying they made a mistake, for I know full well, particularly from watching lots of briefings over several decades, that costs-and-benefits are the way many people like to see analyses laid out nowadays. But, for some reason or feeling I can’t quite clarify, I doubt this is the optimal way to continue analyzing the significance of time perspectives. Cost-benefit commodification may tell us more about the way people perceive the significance of time in our modern era than about time itself and how its significance should be viewed in the future.

As a proponent of STA, I’d have a similar response to seeing people urged uncritically to treat their space or action perspectives as commodities. Even so, who knows: if I ever get around to laying out a typology of STA perspectives, I too may end up discussing them in cost-benefit terms — but without commodifying them.

Meanwhile, there’s a deeper STA objection I have to their treatment of time perspectives as commodities that can be used and changed as people see fit. Doing so conflates time with action perspectives. STA implies identifying and analyzing them separately, not muddling them together. And thus we return again to my critical refrain — with more to follow.