The Time Paradox — Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd

As with many great works of nonfiction, Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life has that paradoxical quality of being incredibly profound and yet, in retrospect, blindingly obvious. It encompasses philosophical debates that occur at all levels of art; fiction often represents our feelings about time, while The Time Paradox lists a few dozen pop songs that contain messages about forms of time orientation. Last weekend I saw Woody Allen’s new movie, Vicky Christina Barcelona, in which one character, Vicky, lives oriented toward the stable future: a nice house, a boring but wealthy husband, and a life that is unlikely to end in a crater but also unlikely to offer stimulating adventures. Christina, played by the luscious and perfectly cast Scarlett Johansson, is a sensual hedonist who pursues novelty and risk-taking. Their contrasting ways of life begin the story, with the two balanced against Juan Antonio’s foil.

The movie is more sophisticated than this, as any art that can be accurately captured in summary is not worth experiencing. Nonetheless, just as The Hero With A Thousand Faces explicitly analyzes the scaffolding of many adventure stories, The Time Paradox implicitly discusses the dominant time views of many works of art. Some, like The Great Gatsby, show opposing characters who see time, and hence one another, in different ways; in such a reading, Nick Carraway is a present-oriented fatalist with little personality of his own, while Jay Gatsby combines a past-positive perspective of Daisy with a future-oriented work ethic that he thinks will win her back. Gatsby on a larger level criticizes both views: in bending all his time orientations toward a particular person, Gatsby’s obsession ultimately leads to a ruinous car crash, destroying himself in crime, like the crime that his wealth is built on, while Nick, without the focus of his attention, seems to drift without learning. The novel’s last line, one of my favorites in all literature, soothes or terrifies the reader by reminding us of how life will continue for others even when it does not for us:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Whether we are terrified by this receding light depends on our reaction to it and how we handle that past.

Zimbardo also wrote The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, which together with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, pokes holes in traditional economic thinking concerning man as as a rational actor. All three argue that things are not as simple. In Zimbardo and Boyd’s case, the problem is that we don’t consciously realize how we tend to think about past, present, and future, or if we do, we aren’t able to step outside ourselves to realize how we’re thinking. What is “rational?” in the context of past, present, and future? To enjoy the moment, or to work toward a future moment? Zimbardo and Boyd implicitly argue neither, and they point to the poorly understood trade-offs we make regarding how we orient ourselves chronologically. That I use the language of economics to present this parallels Zimbardo and Boyd, who discuss “The Economics of Time” along with the nature of opportunity costs—another well-known issue too little referenced in everyday discourse.

Learning about opportunity costs, including those of being oriented toward present, past, or future, gives one more information and hopefully leads to better decision making. This meta-critical force is powerful, if poorly understood, and what I like so much about Zimbardo’s books is their ability to take on this meta-critical function and put it to paper—like a good therapist or friend—pointing to the blind spots we don’t realize exist. Self-help books should do this but often don’t, or if they do—like Marti Olsen Laney’s The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World*—they’re filled with clichés or otherwise poorly written. The Introvert Advantage is especially painful because it conveys a useful message to both introverts and extroverts, but is marred by stylistic problems. The Time Paradox’s promises as a self-help book are slightly deceiving: it is more like a book discussing research that happens to dress in self-help clothing. And aren’t all books, or all art, on some level designed to provide “self-help?” But no matter: the genre, if any, is transcended by the content, as happens here.

The Time Paradox is also clever in its examples of traps each kind of person creates for themselves, whether those focused on the past to the detriment of their daily lives, those focused on the present to the detriment of their belief in their own ability to change the future, or those focused on the future who lose their sense of joy. Regarding the latter, for example, the authors write that “[…] future-oriented workaholics who do not cultivate sensuality and sexuality have little interest in making friends or “wasting” time in playful activities—a recipe for sexual deprivation. In contrast, the present-oriented might be too focused on such aspects, resulting in pregnancy, disease, or awkward pictures on the Internet.

Elsewhere, regarding those who are oriented toward the future, Zimbardo and Boyd say “[…] they do not spend time ruminating on negative past experiences. They focus on tomorrow, not yesterday.” This has advantages, especially in societies that reward delayed gratification, but also problems, as such “futures” can appear callous, or uninterested in the past, or less capable of building friendships based on experiences—perhaps leading them to feel emotionally isolated, or even held back in work. Futures might succeed through plotting and the aforementioned delayed gratification, but they might also miss some aspects of creativity. For example, Zimbardo and Boyd describe a maze game in which futures tended to outperform presents in navigating a mouse through a maze. But, as the authors write:

Many of the presents who failed got frustrated at not finding the right path and ended up making a straight line to the gaol, bursting through the cul-de-sac barriers.

Perhaps some measure of conventional success is thanks not due to following rules and accepting constraints, but through redefining problems and solutions. As one character says to another in The Matrix, some rules can be bent; others, broken. Technological and artistic progress** often stem from such unconventionality. That isn’t to make a logic error and say that unconventionality automatically equates with progress, but channeled in the right area, it might be necessary if not sufficient.

The Sept. 1 issue of The New Yorker shows a cartoon in which a man says, “I’m not losing my memory. I’m living in the now,” implying a past orientation moved into the present caused by age. Mental faculty creates time impressions, and physical changes, including drugs, can alter them—and not necessarily for the worse. In a section regarding how to become more present-oriented, for example, Zimbardo and Boyd offer the recommendation “drink alcohol in moderation,” which is the sort of self-help I’m only too happy to indulge. Perhaps so many writers and artists are alcoholics because they need to get out of the past (Faulkner) or future.

In suggesting this, however, I’m succumbing to the book’s major potential weakness: presenting time disorders or problems as an overly major source of anxiety and in turn diagnosing time as a source of maladies, rather than perhaps an effect. For example, Zimbardo and Boyd come perilously close to implying that correlation is causation when they discuss the outcomes of the time scales they developed to measure one’s attitude; in an early section, they attribute a focus on immediate gratification, self-stimulation, and short-term payoffs to perhaps too great a degree.

Other sections should be qualified, as when Zimbardo and Boyd write that “Our scarcest resource, time is actually much more valuable than money.” That depends on, for example, how much money we have; if I had no food, I would very readily trade some time for money, and almost every day I engage in some transaction designed to turn time into money. For, say, billionaires, time is more scarce than money or virtually any other resource, and it’s worth noting here what economists call the backward bending shape of the labor curve—that is to say, as a person’s earnings increase, they tend to work more hours, but at a certain point, they tend to cut back in order to enjoy the results of those earnings. An extreme example of that tendency can open between generations: the hard-working parents provide so plentifully for their offspring that the offspring tend to adopt a hedonistic, present-oriented lifestyle that ultimately destroys the future-oriented values of work and thrift that led to creation of the fortune in the first place. Today, it’s Paris Hilton or the ceaseless articles about how we damn kids lack the work ethic of the old days; yesterday it was Vanderbilts and Astors whose descendants are now mostly middle-class, and tomorrow it will be the tech titans’ legacy.

Yet even if I don’t entirely agree with sections or nit-pick, merely raising the issues leads us to consider them, our own behavior, and most importantly, how to best lead our lives and allocate a resource Zimbardo and Boyd imply many barely consider. At the end of the last paragraph, I analogized time perspectives to family and social dynamics—an idea I wouldn’t have considered prior to reading The Time Paradox.

Zimbardo and Boyd rightly caution readers not to assume that a person is entirely one orientation, since all people have some level of all orientations within them. Instead, the reader should try applying their own (past, presumably) behavior to the models in order to evaluate them within the framework both offer. Perhaps their most powerful recommendation is one that echoes Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Stoic philosophers: that although we can’t always control events, we can control our reactions and try to influence them. Zimbardo and Boyd write:

[…] psychological principles are elastic: They bend and change according to the situation and frame of reference […] We have no control over the laws of physics, but we do have some control over the frames of reference in which we view time. Recognizing how and when these frames of reference are advantageous may allow you to get more out of life and help you recognize those occasions when time perspectives hinder and impede you.

The most valuable sections of the book can get buried: they don’t come later in that quote, but earlier, when Zimbardo and Boyd discuss how much our perceptions count and can change how we feel. Their biggest purpose is first to increase our sense of agency and our ability to believe in our own influence, limited as it might be. Call this the difference between science and The Secret, a book I won’t dignify with a link: one sees self-empowerment as a first step of many to come, while the latter is an excuse for the first step and then stopping in a myopic haze of wishful thinking.

Finally, if the book has an overarching, abstract message, it is that we should, like a character from a Herman Hesse novel, ask what we want from life and how to find it. The Time Paradox provides guidance in finding the answer by, for example, discouraging “a kind of learning helplessness,” but the actual journey belongs to the reader, not the authors.


* For decent coverage of the same idea, see Jonathan Rauch’s “Caring for Your Introvert” in The Atlantic.

** Assuming these aren’t simply two sides of the same coin.

9 responses

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