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The secret powers of time (The RSA)

Professor Philip Zimbardo conveys how our individual perspectives of time affect our work, health and well-being. Time influences who we are as a person, how we view relationships and how we act in the world. Understanding how different people have different time perspectives can help us reduce our interpersonal conflicts.

So what we have discovered in 30 years of research is six main time zones that people live in: two focus on the past, two on the present, and two on the future.

The people who focus on the past, either remember all the good old times, successes, happy birthdays, nostalgia. These are the people who keep the family records, the family books who have the family rituals.

There are other people who focus only on regret, only on failure, only on all the things that went wrong; so we call those focuses past positive or past negative.

There are two ways to be present-oriented: the obvious one is to be hedonistic, that you live for pleasure and avoid pain; you seek knowledge, you seek sensation.

There are other people who are present-oriented because the say it doesn't pay to plan: my life is fated, fated by my religion, fated by my poverty, fated by the conditions that I'm living under.

Most of us are here because we are future-oriented; we have learned to work rather than play, to resist temptation.

But there is another way to be future-oriented. Depending on your religion, life begins after the death of the mortal body. To be future-oriented you have to trust that when you make a decision about the future it's going to carry up. If you have inflation you don't put money in the bank because you can't trust the future. If there is instability in your family, adults can't keep their promises to you. The closer you are to the equator the more present orientated you are; the more you're in an environment that doesn't change it gives you a sense of sameness rather than change.

Protestants everywhere have higher gross national product than Catholic countries, in part because of the Protestant ethic, because of the notion that you work hard to succeed to demonstrate you are God's chosen people.

My family comes from Sicily, and in Italy there is a political movement called La Liga to cut Italy in half, to have north Italy and south Italy cut just below Tuscany. The people in the north say, "We do all the work. The people in the south are lazy they want to have babies and three hour dinners etc." The people in the south say, "They're not Italian, they're German-Austrian. They eat yogurt instead of pasta. They take their lunch in a paper bag and in the recent election the Liga got 14% of the national vote."

It turns out to be accurate; we have done research. The people in the north tend to be on a scheme much more future-oriented, people in the south tend to be more past-oriented or present hedonistic.

And so my family is Sicilian and I go back every year. I started an educational foundation. We send high school kids to college and set up computer labs, and I'm talking about some of the stuff and a man comes up to me and says, "I'm a poet. I live with words. It wasn't until I heard you talk that I realized there's no future tense verb is Sicilian dialect."

I say, "What do you mean?"

"There was, is, there is no will be," he said. "That's why nothing gets done."

I didn't realize it's because we never plan. So again, here is how, when you have a number of people who share a certain time perspective, that it does come to characterize a nation. In the same way, if you have a Catholic nation where people tend to present or past-oriented, rather than Protestant nation, which tend in general tend to be more future-oriented, it affects you in a very profound ways.

So there is a wonderful book called The Geography of Time, and it is written by a dear friend of mine, Robert Levine, who's a social psychologist. And he actually literally went around the world doing wonderful experiments; he looks at what he called the pace of life.

See, time perspective is how people divide their own experience into partitions, time zones. Another kind of time orientation is your sense of duration. How much time has expired while you're sitting in a dentist's office before they start drilling, how much time has expired when you have been waiting in line, how much time has expired when you're having fun. So time duration is totally a function of whether you're bored or excited or not. And what he does is he shows that in different cultures, people have a different pace of life and you do this very simply. You sit in a café and you mark up 100 meters and as people pass you start a stopwatch and you see how fast people walk. You go to a post office and on a piece of paper you say I'd like, you know, three pounds of this postage, or 10 euros, and you see how long it takes.

So he has a bunch of these measures and it turns out you can identify cultures as [having] different paces of life, and now cities. And he shows that in America you can rank 60 cities according to high pace of life and low pace of life. In the ones with the highest pace of life, men have the most coronary problems. It becomes part of your whole way of life.

We all begin life as present hedonists. All of us. I mean, at the breast and the bottle we want pleasure, we want to avoid pain, and one of the things that families do, especially schools--my sense is the purpose of school is to take present-oriented little beasts and make them more future-oriented and in some cultures more past-oriented.

In America a child drops out of school every nine seconds. This is worse for kids with a minority background and it's worse for boys than girls. There is actually a disaster recipe developing among boys in America. Literally dropping out of high school and it's not simply for poor performance. One of the problems is a study that shows that by the time a boy is 21 he has spent 10,000 hours playing video games alone. Probably more watching pornography alone. And you put that together and it means a- they haven't learned social skills. But also it means that they live in a world that they create; they're playing Warcraft, they're playing all these other games, which is exciting. In fact, I just heard the other day that these that these games companies are now going to develop 3D games so that the world will be all around you.

Their brains are being digitally re-wired. Which means they will never fit in a traditional classroom which is analogue. Somebody talks at you, without even the nice pictures. Meaning it's boring. They control nothing, they sit there passively. If you want to change the curriculum we have to go back to reading, writing, arithmetic. Disaster!. These kids will never fit into that. They have to be in the situation where they are controlling something, and school is set up where you control nothing. School is all about learning, delaying gratification, literally endlessly.

All addictions are addictions of present hedonism. Food, sex, drugs, gambling, etc. All of our propaganda, all of our educational message, all our public relations messages are designed for future-oriented kids, who's not the problem. They tell you here is the negative consequence for doing what you do. Future-oriented kids know that they don't do it. Present-oriented kids know the future consequences. If you're a teenage girl you know that if you have unprotected sex you're likely to get pregnant or have sexually transmitted disease. You know it but that knowledge never feeds back to change your behaviour.

So that's the interesting thing about time perspective. I think we are underestimating the power of technology in re-wiring young people's brains. Kids don't wear wristwatches. They say it's a single function device. You don't waste time with a single function device; and they live in the digital culture where it's about the second.

One of the things that gets people upset in America is how long it takes to boot up your computer and how long it takes to download something, less than a minute that makes people angry, so it becomes an emotional thing, you get angry waiting in line waiting for services. Waiting is a waste of time even if it's waiting for your computer to boot up. I think there is a fundamental change going on in our culture that I think we adults are not realizing, that kids are totally different than we were and it's because it's a revolution in time.

There is a recent study we did with USA Today asking Americans how busy they are. The vast majority of Americans, more than 50%, said I'm busier now than I was last year, and busier last year than the previous year and I sacrifice friends, family and sleep for my success. This is across the board, not separating it by future or past orientation. Then we say suppose you had an 8-day week what would you do?  Oh, that would be great! They would spend most of that time working harder. Not with friends not with family and not even sleeping.

I did this study 20 years ago and I was upset again, from my Italian background, only 60% of Americans said they had regular sit-down family dinners. When we re-did the study last year only one in 5 American families have sit-down dinners together. In America we talk about family values. You can't have family values if you never have family meals together.

I think many of life's puzzles can be solved simply by understanding our own time perspective and that of others. Lots of conflict we have with people is really a conflict from a different time perspective. Once you aware of that you stop making negative attributions like you're dumb, or you're childish, you're pigheaded or you're authoritarian.

It's really the most simple idea in the world.


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