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.


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