Thinking about the past and the future: A developmental study of temporal asymmetries

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Behavioural Sciences

Abstract

We seem to care more about the future than the past. For example, we may be unconcerned about a very painful toothache that we had in the past, but go out of our way to avoid even a mild toothache in the future. Philosophers have debated whether the fact that we are biased toward the future is irrational or incoherent, or is best explained in evolutionary terms (e.g., as allowing us to prepare effectively for what is to come). However, this bias is not merely a philosophical curiosity, but one that is likely to have a surprising impact on our everyday judgments: e.g., the findings of psychological research imply that if someone is deciding what to charge for their work, all other things being equal s/he will charge less for work s/he has already completed than for work s/he has yet to carry out. This is because we seem to value events in the future more than in the past. To give another example, if we are deciding how much someone should be punished for doing something wrong, we are likely to think more punishment is appropriate if the wrongdoing lies in the future than the past. We see future acts as more deserving of praise and blame, and more deliberate, than similar past acts. Moreover, events in the future feel closer in time than events an equivalent distance in the past: two weeks before Christmas, it seems to be very close, whereas two weeks after Christmas the holiday may feel as though it is in the distant past.

These phenomena can be described collectively as temporal asymmetries in judgments, and have been interpreted as being part of a more general bias toward the future. Researchers point to the fact that we spend more time thinking about the future than the past, and that we represent ourselves as moving toward the future and away from the past, as further evidence for such a bias. However, there are reasons to believe that this bias may not be present in young children and may only emerge with development.

The aim of this project is to examine the development of these types of temporal asymmetries in children and adolescents. Studying these effects in children will provide a new way of exploring the issue of whether younger people are less future-oriented than adults. Moreover, it will provide a unique way of testing some claims about why temporal asymmetries occur. Building on initial pilot studies, the project will explore when children first seem to value future events more than the past, judge that future events seem closer in time than past events, feel more emotion when considering the future versus the past, and judge that future actions are more deserving of praise or blame than past actions. It will also examine whether all of the asymmetries are present from the same age or whether differences in emotions felt when thinking about the past versus the future appear first and can explain other asymmetries. Furthermore, it will explore whether there are developmental changes in other aspects of thinking that have been taken to be indicative of a temporal bias: the amount of time spent thinking about the future versus the past and the tendency to represent ourselves as moving toward the future and away from the past. It will examine whether such changes go hand-in-hand with the emergence of temporal asymmetries. These studies will be the first to be conducted with children and will provide a new body of evidence about fundamental changes in children's thinking; moreover studying temporal asymmetries in a developmental context will help us to explain why these phenomena occur.

Planned Impact

The proposed research will be the first to be conducted examining the developmental origins of temporal asymmetry, and will also be the most sustained and systematic attempt to study these effects and test some existing theoretical claims. Research on these effects is in its infancy and has only emerged in the academic literature within the last few years. As a result, although previous research has been published in very high profile journals (such as Psychological Science) it is unlikely that it has so far had significant non-academic impact. However, the temporal asymmetries in question potentially have wide-ranging effects on different types of real-life judgments and decisions. One notable effect of these asymmetries is to yield judgments that are temporally inconsistent. For example, Caruso's studies suggest that a jury deciding to award compensation will, other things being equal, offer greater compensation for future than past suffering. Furthermore, experimental studies demonstrate that judgments about whether or not the behavior of individuals (e.g., in avoiding tax) or large corporations (e.g., in maximizing profit at the expense of consumers) is deliberate and unethical are also affected by whether the actions in question are in the past or the future (Burns et al., 2010; Caruso, 2010). Although such temporal effects on judgments seem irrational, people do not seem to be aware of such biases and when these are made apparent find them difficult to defend. The current project will serve an important role in helping us understand these effects; such an understanding is crucial when explaining to the non-academic community how these biases may impact on decision making across different spheres of public and private life.

This project takes a developmental approach to understanding the underpinnings of temporal asymmetries, meaning that in addition to shedding light on adult decision making, it will also provide a characterization of how this influence on decision making changes with age. There is a widespread assumption that children and adolescents are more short-sighted and less future-oriented in their decision-making than adults, resulting in various sorts of real-world behaviors that may not be in their best long-term interests. Temporal asymmetries have been described as a temporal bias toward the future, and mapping out the developmental profile of such a bias may provide a way of understanding why decision making seems to become more future-oriented with age.

Because research in this area is at an early stage, the best starting point in delivering impact is to clearly communicate the existence and nature of temporal effects on decision-making to a broad range of non-academics. Thus, the impact plan focuses primarily on engagement with the public and non-academic organisations; given the basic nature of the research, it is not realistic to assume that this project will have demonstrable effects on policy or practice within the time period of the project. However, the striking nature of the effects, and the potentially important developmental implications of the findings, should ensure that it is possible to generate widespread interest outside of the research community.
 
Title About Time: Performing Arts Evening 
Description This was a curated evening on the theme of time involving three performance arts groups, Big Telly Theatre, Echo Echo Dance and BBeyond performance art. Findings from the ESRC project were reported in a talk by Professor McCormack as part of the performance evening. The event has been professionally video recorded and will be made available online on the website given below. 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact This event raised the profile of psychological research on time amongst the general public who attended one of the four performances. We also worked closely with members of the three arts groups, all of whom used input from psychological research to inform their practice and specifically the performances developed for the evening. 
URL http://www.unravellingtime.net/about-time.html
 
Description We developed new tasks to examine developmental changes in thinking about the past versus the future. Key results include:
1) Temporal asymmetries (i.e., past-future differences) in judgments start to emerge early in development. Children as young as 4-5 years judge that future events feel closer than events an equivalent distance in the past; by 6 years children report feeling stronger emotions about future than past events, and by 9 years, future events are valued more than past events.
2) When their minds are wandering, adults are more likely to think about the future than the past, but the same is not true of children or adolescents. Young children can also find it particularly difficult to spontaneously generate descriptions of future events when cued to produce event descriptions.
3) The tendency to think of the future as "in front" of the body and the past as "behind" increases developmentally. Not all 6- to 7-year-olds automatically map periods of time to locations in space in this way, whereas this mapping is robust in English-speaking adults.
4) We did not replicate previous findings indicating that moral judgments are different for future versus past events. We found no evidence that children judge a person who will act prosocially in the future as kinder than someone who acted the same way in the past, although this may have been due to children's difficulties using the scales that we employed. However, in a different task neither children nor adults judged someone more harshly who will act unfairly than someone who has acted unfairly.
Theoretical contribution
These findings suggest that some types of asymmetries in judgment may be basic characteristics of human cognition, and are potentially compatible with the idea that the human cognitive system is primarily structured to prepare for the future. Nevertheless, there are developmental changes. Being oriented towards the future, in the sense of thinking of it as in front of one, is not developmentally basic. There was also some evidence that the tendency to be more preoccupied by the future than the past is late emerging.
Methodological contribution.
We showed for the first time that it is possible to measure temporal asymmetries in children's emotion, distance, and value judgments. We also established new tasks that can be used in other research areas. Our mind-wandering task in (2) could be used to examine developmental changes in mind-wandering and also the relation between mind-wandering and individual differences (such as children's ability to remember new information). The fairness task described in (3) showed for the first time that, when judging whether someone acted fairly, 6-7 year-olds are just as able to consider information about whether someone freely intended to act that way as adults. Previous research indicated that children of this age focus only on whether an outcome was fair, rather than the underlying intention, but results from our child-friendly task suggest that this may have been because of methodological limitations.
Exploitation Route Our findings indicate that it may be important in everyday contexts to consider children's abilities to think about the past and the future, and the salience of the future in children's mental lives. This may be relevant when considering, for example, children's rights to participate in decisions regarding themselves, or in educational settings in which children are being asked to think and plan ahead. In general, it is assumed that children are more "short sighted" in their decision-making than adults, but our research suggests that the future does matter for children in the sense that it they value future events and feel strong emotions about them.
We note also that the mind-wandering task developed in the course of the project might also be very useful for researchers seeking to examine the effect of mind-wandering on children's learning, potentially in educational contexts. Research with adults suggests mind-wandering can impair learning but no current research with children has examined this issue. In our study, we did not find that children reported mind-wandering more than adults, but we did not examine this issue in a learning context.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice

 
Description The key aim of the impact strategy associated with this grant was to raise awareness amongst the general public of temporal asymmetries in judgments, and the implications of such asymmetries. To this end, we (i) published an article in "The Conversation" outlining the phenomenon of interest; (ii) published an article in Impact magazine describing the project and initial findings; (iii) distributed high-quality professionally printed leaflets describing the project and initial findings to a large number of schools and parents; (iv) described project findings in a workshop as part of the Northern Ireland Science Festival (v) described project findings in a workshop as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences; (vi) disseminated the findings through a project website. We also disseminated some of the findings of this project to a set of three performing arts groups: Big Telly Theatre, BBeyond Performance Art Collective, and Echo Echo Dance Company, by means of a series of workshops on the general theme of time. These groups then used the findings to inform their practice and to help in devising a performance piece for a curated evening entitled "About Time". This was performed on four occasions: twice at Warwick Arts Centre, once in the Black Box in Belfast, and once in Echo Echo's studio in Derry. In each instance there was an audience consisting of members of the public. Professor McCormack also outlined some of the key project findings in a short talk at these events. A video of the performance has been made freely available online, including the short descriptions of some of the project findings.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Creative Economy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Time: Between Metaphysics and Psychology
Amount £482,826 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/P00217X/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2017 
End 12/2019
 
Description Article for "The Conversation" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We published a piece in "The Conversation", an online magazine aimed at policy-makers as well as the general public, describing the main issue to be addressed in our research project. This piece explained the issue in lay terms. We are aware that the piece was picked up by the audience because it was linked to via Twitter 54 times and Facebook 13 times.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://theconversation.com/how-our-bias-toward-the-future-can-cloud-our-moral-judgement-55057
 
Description Curated performance evening on the theme of time delivered in Warwick, Belfast, and Derry 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This event was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and involved working with three performing arts groups, Echo Echo dance, Big Telly Theatre Company, and BBeyond Performance Art. The event was entitled "About Time", and we worked with the three arts groups over a period of two years to develop the arts pieces that were stimulated by our ongoing research on time. The result was a curated evening of performances, which was presented twice at Warwick Arts Centre, once in the Black Box (Belfast) and once in Echo Echo Dance studios (Derry). At each of these performances, Professor McCormack gave a talk which included a description of two sets of findings stemming from the ESRC-funded project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description ESRC Social Sciences Festival event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Event entitled "Thinking in Time: The Developmental Psychology of Future Thinking". This was held as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences and involved members of the public visiting the laboratory, participating in a live experiment, and hearing a presentation about the outcomes of two ESRC-funded projects on the development of future thinking. This event was positively evaluated by those present through evaluation questionnaires.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Northern Ireland Science Festival Event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This event was a workshop held as part of the Northern Ireland Science Festival. The general public were invited to attend an event about the development of future thinking. They visited the laboratory in the School of Psychology and participated in a live experiment. They then heard two short presentations about the research we were conducting in this area and its findings.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Participated in a panel for BBC Radio 4 programme "All in the Mind" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I participated in a live panel discussion for the Radio 4 programme All in the Mind. Please note this programme is also broadcast on the World Service under a different title, with a potentially large international audience. During the recording, I talked about my work on time and future thinking in children. Audience questions were also taken. This programme will be broadcast in Spring 2020 nationally and internationally.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Participation in British Science Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I participated in an interdisciplinary event on the theme of Time at the British Science Festival in which I described, amongst other things, some of the key findings of this project to a general audience made up of members of the public. There were approximately 200 people present. As a result of this, I was subsequently invited to participate in two further activities, the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences in the Midlands area, and an episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme All in the Mind, subsequently recorded in 2020. Audience feedback from this event was also very good.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Participation in a public engagement event as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences in the Midlands area 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I gave a talk on my research on time and development as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences in the Midlands area. This talk was delivered in Coventry in a public venue. There was good audience participation at the event, although the audience was small.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Public engagement talk at the Northern Ireland Science Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I delivered a talk at the Northern Ireland Science Festival on the Puzzle of Time. This was an interdisciplinary event at which I described some of my research on time in children. The talk was sold out with an audience of over 100 people. Audience engagement was excellent.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020