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.
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As noted in the Part-1 post about Zimbardo & Boyd’s book The Time Paradox, their typology identifies six key time perspectives:
• Past-negativeApropos 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 perspectiveThis 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).
• 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 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.]