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I ran across a blog post at Dangerous Intersection quite a long time ago. It’s dated December 21, 2008, and the subject – the human perception of time – interested me, but the post was long, so I saved it for future reading in my Bloglines account. I finally got around to reading it a couple of weeks ago. It discusses work done by psychologist Philip Zimbardo on how our individual perception of time (past-oriented, present-oriented, future-oriented) can determine whether we are able to successfully meet our goals.

I followed a link in the post to a couple of surveys created by Zimbardo to help people determine their time orientation. (My addiction to surveys actually goes beyond the cheesy quizzes offered up on Facebook.)

My results were as follows:

Past-negative – 2.70

Past-positive – 3.56

Present-hedonistic – 3.67

Present-fatalistic – 2.33

Future – 3.69

and Transcendentalist-future (the second quiz) – 3.20

Once you’ve taken the two surveys, you can compare your scores to the ideal scores provided. The ideal scores are thus:

Past-negative – 1.95

Past-positive – 4.60

Present-hedonistic – 3.9

Present-fatalistic – around 1.5 (the chart doesn’t give the exact number)

Future – 4.0

Transcendentalist-future – 3.3

I’m not terribly sure what the specific score numbers mean; I take them to be an internal scoring system for the surveys. In the explanation for the chart of ideal time perspective scores, it says the following:

“The red dots and lines are not associated with the data in any way. It is simply our idea of what an ideal time perspective looks like. We have included it, so you can have an indication of how to improve your time perspective.”

My question is … How did they decide what an ideal time perspective is? As you can see, my scores do not match the ideal, but I feel that my time perspective is fairly nicely balanced. I don’t spend too much time dwelling on the past, nor do I feel overly oriented toward the future. It’s not like I ignore those time perspectives either.  I live in the present, but not to the detriment of a potential future. I subscribe to the saying, “Live as though you’ll live forever and die tomorrow.”

Perhaps the fact that I’m a historian by profession has leveled my time perspective. In studying the past, I’ve discovered that it is very much like the present – it’s not the romantic, everything-was-so-much-better-then time that so many people make it out to be. It’s also in studying the past that I’ve gained an appreciation of living in the present because you never know how much present you have left. (Thank the obituaries for that perspective.) Examining the artifacts of the past also gives me an idea of how people leave items behind that inform those who come across them in the future.

Because of my personal experiences with time perspectives, here’s what I’d like to see Philip Zimbardo do with his surveys. I want him to give them to specific groups of people – historians, for one – and see what the results are. I can’t imagine that there is only one ideal human time perspective. Perhaps there are different ideals for different career paths. Maybe sci-fi writers are ideally more future-oriented. Maybe those with a particular religious or spiritual bent tend toward a specific time orientation. What might parsing the data further along these lines tell us about time perspectives?

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