Philip Zimbardo: The psychology of time
February 6, 2009
Psychologist Philip Zimbardo says happiness and success are rooted in a trait most of us disregard: the way we orient toward the past, present and future. He suggests we calibrate our outlook on time as a first step to improving our lives.Philip Zimbardo
Philip Zimbardo was the leader of the notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment -- and an expert witness at Abu Ghraib. His book The Lucifer Effect explores the nature of evil; now, in his new work, he studies the nature of heroism. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I want to share with you
some ideas about the secret power of time,
in a very short time.
Video: All right, start the clock please. 30 seconds studio.
Keep it quiet please. Settle down.
It's about time. End sequence. Take one.
15 seconds studio.
10, nine, eight, seven,
six, five, four, three, two ...
Philip Zimbardo: Let's tune into the conversation
of the principals in Adam's temptation.
"Come on Adam, don't be so wishy-washy. Take a bite." "I did."
"One bite, Adam. Don't abandon Eve."
"I don't know, guys.
I don't want to get in trouble."
"Okay. One bite. What the hell?"
Life is temptation. It's all about yielding, resisting,
yes, no, now, later, impulsive, reflective,
present focus and future focus.
Promised virtues fall prey to the passions of the moment.
Of teenage girls who pledged sexual abstinence and virginity until marriage --
thank you George Bush --
the majority, 60 percent, yielded to sexual temptations within one year.
And most of them did so without using birth control.
So much for promises.
Now lets tempt four-year-olds, giving them a treat.
They can have one marshmallow now. But if they wait
until the experimenter comes back, they can have two.
Of course it pays, if you like marshmallows, to wait.
What happens is two-thirds of the kids give in to temptation.
They cannot wait. The others, of course, wait.
They resist the temptation. They delay the now for later.
Walter Mischel, my colleague at Stanford,
went back 14 years later,
to try to discover what was different about those kids.
There were enormous differences between kids who resisted
and kids who yielded, in many ways.
The kids who resisted scored 250 points higher on the SAT.
That's enormous. That's like a whole set of different IQ points.
They didn't get in as much trouble. They were better students.
They were self-confident and determined. And the key for me today,
the key for you,
is, they were future-focused rather than present-focused.
So what is time perspective? That's what I'm going to talk about today.
Time perspective is the study of how individuals,
all of us, divide the flow of your human experience
into time zones or time categories.
And you do it automatically and non-consciously.
They vary between cultures, between nations,
between individuals, between social classes,
between education levels.
And the problem is that they can become biased,
because you learn to over-use some of them and under-use the others.
What determines any decision you make?
You make a decision on which you're going to base an action.
For some people it's only about what is in the immediate situation,
what other people are doing and what you're feeling.
And those people, when they make their decisions in that format --
we're going to call them "present-oriented,"
because their focus is what is now.
For others, the present is irrelevant.
It's always about "What is this situation like that I've experienced in the past?"
So that their decisions are based on past memories.
And we're going to call those people "past-oriented," because they focus on what was.
For others it's not the past, it's not the present,
it's only about the future.
Their focus is always about anticipated consequences.
We're going to call them "future-oriented." Their focus is on what will be.
So, time paradox, I want to argue,
the paradox of time perspective,
is something that influences every decision you make,
you're totally unaware of.
Namely, the extent to which you have one of these
biased time perspectives.
Well there is actually six of them. There are two ways to be present-oriented.
There is two ways to be past-oriented, two ways to be future.
You can focus on past-positive, or past-negative.
You can be present-hedonistic,
namely you focus on the joys of life, or present-fatalist --
it doesn't matter, your life is controlled.
You can be future-oriented, setting goals.
Or you can be transcendental future:
namely, life begins after death.
Developing the mental flexibility to shift time perspectives fluidly
depending on the demands of the situation,
that's what you've got to learn to do.
So, very quickly, what is the optimal time profile?
High on past-positive. Moderately high on future.
And moderate on present-hedonism.
And always low on past-negative
So the optimal temporal mix is what you get from the past --
past-positive gives you roots. You connect your family, identity and your self.
What you get from the future is wings
to soar to new destinations, new challenges.
What you get from the present hedonism
is the energy, the energy to explore yourself,
places, people, sensuality.
Any time perspective in excess has more negatives than positives.
What do futures sacrifice for success?
They sacrifice family time. They sacrifice friend time.
They sacrifice fun time. They sacrifice personal indulgence.
They sacrifice hobbies. And they sacrifice sleep. So it affects their health.
And they live for work, achievement and control.
I'm sure that resonates with some of the TEDsters.
And it resonated for me. I grew up as a poor kid in the South Bronx ghetto,
a Sicilian family -- everyone lived in the past and present.
I'm here as a future-oriented person
who went over the top, who did all these sacrifices
because teachers intervened, and made me future oriented.
Told me don't eat that marshmallow,
because if you wait you're going to get two of them,
until I learned to balance out.
I've added present-hedonism, I've added a focus on the past-positive,
so, at 76 years old, I am more energetic than ever, more productive,
and I'm happier than I have ever been.
I just want to say that we are applying this to many world problems:
changing the drop-out rates of school kids,
combating addictions, enhancing teen health,
curing vets' PTSD with time metaphors -- getting miracle cures --
promoting sustainability and conservation,
reducing physical rehabilitation where there is a 50-percent drop out rate,
altering appeals to suicidal terrorists,
and modifying family conflicts as time-zone clashes.
So I want to end by saying:
many of life's puzzles can be solved
by understanding your time perspective and that of others.
And the idea is so simple, so obvious,
but I think the consequences are really profound.
Thank you so much.
Philip Zimbardo was the leader of the notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment -- and an expert witness at Abu Ghraib. His book The Lucifer Effect explores the nature of evil; now, in his new work, he studies the nature of heroism.Why you should listen
Philip Zimbardo knows what evil looks like. After serving as an expert witness during the Abu Ghraib trials, he wrote The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. From Nazi comic books to the tactics of used-car salesmen, he explores a wealth of sources in trying to explain the psychology of evil.
A past president of the American Psychological Association and a professor emeritus at Stanford, Zimbardo retired in 2008 from lecturing, after 50 years of teaching his legendary introductory course in psychology. In addition to his work on evil and heroism, Zimbardo recently published The Time Paradox, exploring different cultural and personal perspectives on time.
Still well-known for his controversial Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo in his new research looks at the psychology of heroism. He asks, "What pushes some people to become perpetrators of evil, while others act heroically on behalf of those in need?"
The original video is available on TED.com