Time Perspectives and Cultural Diversity
30th November 2016
Time is the only standardised measurement of time which is the same in every country, yet is such a conceptual and perhaps personal concept. If time perspectives, just like cultures, differ around the world, could there be a correlation between culture and how people view time?
Psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, Philip Zimbardo, explains his though about ‘The psychology of Time’ during a Ted Talk presentation in Long Beach, California in February 2009. It scratches the surface of the topic of his publication written together with John Boyd from 2008: ‘The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life’. His presentation covers tests showing the correlation between temptation and success, what time perspectives are, how they shape our decision making and ultimately how to balance these time perspectives to solve problems.
His initial research was based on a marshmallow test conducted by Stanford professor Walter Mischel in the 1960s (see Appendix A). Zimbardo further analysed how our decisions are determined by our ‘time zones’. He calls the way humans non-consciously divide the flow of human experiences to six time perspectives (TP):
Past TP - focused on positives Past TP - focused on negative Present TP - hedonism (focus on joys of life) Present TP - fatalism (doesn't matter, life is controlled) Future TP - life goal oriented Future TP - transcendental (life begins after death or the mortal body)
He does point out that any time perspective in excess has more negatives than positives. Future orientated people often sacrifice family time, friend time, fun time, personal indulgences, hobbies and sleep for success. They live for work, achievement and control. Phil Zimbardo previously saw himself as only future orientated. He grew up poor in a south Bronx ghetto. His whole Sicilian family was past and present orientated. He sacrificed a lot to achieve success, all thanks to his teachers who got involved and taught him to be future orientated. At some point he understood how to balance his time perspectives. He added present-hedonism and past-positive. He states that now being 76 years old, he has more energy, is more productive and happier than ever before. Zimbardo concludes that many life problems are solvable by understanding your time perspective and those of others. Since 2009 he is working together with Richard Sword to turn the Time Perspective Theory into a clinical therapy. They started a four-year long pilot study and establishing their time perspective therapy by applying TP to help combat addictions, chase drop out rates of school children and cure veterans' PSTD with time metaphors, to name a few (Ted Talk 2009).
To support Zimbardo’s personal statement on cultural diversity, professor of psychology, Robert V. Levine (1997), analyses in ‘A geography of Time’ how people interact with time around the world. He was able to divide time-keeping into two categories; clock-time where people operate by the clock, and event-time where scheduling is determined by how people ‘feel’ when an event should begin and end.
His chapter on ‘A Brief History of Clock Time’ looks at the historical and social changes regarding time in order to see how society has been regulated by the clock to revolutionise daily life. From Ancient Greek and Egyptian sundials that showed daylight hours, or simple mechanical pieces that allowed monks to know when to pray, to Galileo’s breakthrough discovery of the pendulum. He points out that as industrialisation grew, timepieces gained centre stage, even in arts and literature. Marketing the virtues of clock time to small children started in the early 20th century as a way to control the population and their productivity at work (Levine, 1997).
On the other hand, his next chapter ‘Living on Event Time’ is a collection of his personal insights of his travels around the world and his experiences on how locals interact with time. He uses qualitative research in order to give examples how people talk about time in different countries - which I personally think it may show how language reflects on culture and behaviour. He later reflects on Hall’s (1983) monochronic (focusing on one activity at a time) and polychronic (focuses on a few activities at a time) ways of scheduling, and it’s correlation to Japanese culture. Levine (1997) suggests that his defined clock time cultures are less flexible with balancing a few activities at once, therefore are monochronic, whereas event time cultures prefer polychronic schedules as they are more spontaneous.
I have been studying in international schools my whole life, hence learning about cultural differences and forming comparisons became second nature. We were able to exchange insights of our ‘local’ countries and traditions, whilst having a distant perspective as we were no longer a ‘local’. Zimbardo’s personal statements on how he felt detached from his family’s roots due to the difference in time perspective that he was tough at school felt familiar to me. Finding out that there are cultural similarities among ‘cultural nomads’ feels captivating yet familiar at once.
From a cultural perspective, Levine’s search into time differences around the world were even deeper than Zimbardo’s, as it wasn’t only his view on his background and family, but it was a look into how foreign he felt in other countries due to difference in time perspective. As he travelled he needed to adjust to the culture and how the locals perceive time. Unfortunately as he had a stronger human connection it is wise to remember that his research could have been more bias or stereotypical.
Many of my works touch upon the theme of cultural similarities and/or differences surrounding a common topic (e.g. proverbs). For over a year I have been interested in the possible correlation between cultural diversity and time perspectives. Interviewing my expat friends about how they perceive time and whether it reflects on how time is perceived in their countries, will expand to a broader research group of people I am less familiar with. Zimbardo’s six time perspectives will become a starting point of my conversations, as it allows people to self-reflect how they interact with time.
To expand Zimbardo’s and Levine’s research further, I would like to see whether the aspect of measurement could be included in cultural diversity and time. Would it be possible to challange the unit of time to suit cultural or individual perspectives? The aim of this unit would not be creating another universally used method, but to provoke people’s thought about time, how they use it and how other people around the world use it. Maybe they would prefer a ‘mañana mañana’ mentality over a New York minute? Levine’s (1997) personal take in his ‘Living on Event Time’ chapter not only supports how important it is to focus on qualitative over quantitive data collection, but also pay attention to the differences in language when speaking about time.
There are a few questions that my research sources raise. Firstly, Zimbardo does not specify that time perspectives are strictly culturally connected. His statement of him being from “a Sicilian family - everyone lived in the past and present” (Ted Talk, 2009) could simply imply the characters from his family were past and present orientated, not that Sicilians in general are past and present orientated. In order to avoid creating stereotypes, an aspect needs to be taken into account: could time perspective be an individual view of time, or could there be any cultural background that forms our time perception?
Secondly, is there a structure to follow whilst cumulating qualitative data in order to steer away from bias and stereotypes? Zimbardo’s six time perspectives were an outcome of Walter Mischel’s quantitive data marshmallow test. Before any interviews, I would need a strong base to understanding how to cumulate correct qualitative data on such a broad and undefined topic such as time. Reading into what method psychologists, like Levine, cumulated their qualitative data about time in different countries - without being bias or stereotypical - would guide my research into a neutral perspective. Would using the Mom Test (see Appendix B) be enough?
Although Zimardo’s focus on differences in time perspectives is between individuals, he does mention, on the basis of his own family’s experience, that a cultural background may steer those individuals into specific time perspectives. On the other hand, Levine’s more qualitative method categorised how cultures deal with time-keeping; whether clock-time or event-time. As my interest lays in a possible correlation between cultural diversity and time measurement, it is clear that interviewing my international friends about how they interact with time and/or time perspectives and how it compares to the interaction in their home country is the first step in gathering qualitative data. My next step should be in collecting that qualitative data from the locals themselves, just like Levine, for a comparison. Aspects to take into close consideration are language - how people speak about time -, and finding a structure to ask those questions during the interview to not only control any possible bias or stereotype forming, but also to avoid directing the interviewee into an answer I want to hear.
Fitzpatrick, R. (2013). The Mom Test. 1st ed. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Hall, E. T. (1983). The dance of life: The other dimension of time. Garden City: Anchor Press.
Levine, R. (1997). A Geography of Time. 1st ed. [ebook] Oxford: Oneworld Publications, pp.51-100. Available at: http://www.cycle-planet.com/paleo/ageographyoftime.pdf [Accessed 25 Nov. 2016].
Ted Talks. (2009). The psychology of time. [online] Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/philip_zimbardo_prescribes_a_healthy_take_on_time?language=en [Accessed 30 Oct. 2016].
The marshmallow experiment conducted by Walter Mischel consisted of tempting four-year olds with treats. They were told they could eat the marshmallow now, or if they wait till they end, they would receive another. Two-thirds of the children gave into temptation. The rest resisted, ‘delaying the now for later’. Fourteen years later the researcher went back to study the children. There was a large difference in many areas between the children that yielded or resisted temptation. The children that resisted not only excelled academically compared to the rest, but also got into less trouble, they were better students, they we self-confident and determined. They were future focussed, rather than present focussed (Ted Talks, 2009).
This experiment allowed decades of further research, including that of Philip Zimbardo, into why we make the decisions we make.
The Mom Test was created to gather non-bias qualitative data from interviews and questionnaires for business data collection purposes. The questions are formulated in a way that allow for broader and extensive answers (no yes/no answers), as well as making sure that the questions are not formulated in a way that they guide the interviewee into an answer that the interviewer is hoping to hear (Fitzpatrick, 2013).
This method of phrasing questions might help me collect non-bias, non-stereotypical, open and descriptive answers for interviews about culture and time perception.