The Edge of Choice

What affects us when we decide?

Would You Rather Travel to the Past or to the Future?

What does recent research say about time travel preferences?

About nine years ago, on a chilly October night, Ichiro Suzuki hit his 258th hit of the year. In doing so, he broke the record for number of hits in a season that was set by George Sisler way back in 1920. As the whole team rushes out of the dugout to celebrate with Ichiro, the camera pans over to the third base line, where we see an older woman wearing a cream-colored jacket and a reserved smile. It’s Sisler’s octogenarian daughter.

In one of the classier moments from baseball history, Ichiro leaves his teammates, runs over to her, and bows. The tears that were already in her eyes spill out a bit more and she graciously thanks him for acknowledging her, as well as her now long-deceased father. It was impossible in that moment to not only think back to the time when Sisler first set the record, but also ahead to the future, when someone will inevitably best Ichiro’s accomplishment. This is one of the things I love about baseball: it’s both a timeless sport as well as one that makes mental time travel relatively easy.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

All of this came to mind a few weeks ago as I watched David Ortiz hit a grand slam to put the Red Sox ahead of the Tigers in one of the playoff games. I found myself wondering about similar dramatic playoff moments from the past (like Carlton Fisk’s ’75 walk-off homer), and the ones that would occur in the years to come. I’m not sure if it the grand slam prompted TBS to start playing classic baseball footage or if I had just had a bit too much pumpkin beer, but I had a thought: would I rather travel back to the past to witness one of these incredible moments or zoom ahead to the future to see what might yet occur?

It turns out that I’m not the only one to wonder about the best direction to travel in time. This question was actually put forth to a group of several hundred research participants in a new paper by Florence Ettlin and Ralph Hertwig. The authors were simply curious which direction people would choose, and how their answers would map on to other aspects of their lives. In an analysis like this, there are really an endless number of factors that such a variable (that is, time travel preference) could map on to. But the authors chose to look at a specific few: age, risk attitudes, and conservatism/liberalism. How might each map onto preference for time travel?

Age. As newer technology proliferates, it becomes harder and harder to keep up with the latest advances. Traveling to the future might be even more taxing on cognitive abilities, and so older people (relative to their younger counterparts) could be hesitant to travel to the future because it could simply be too overwhelming. On the other hand, the opposite might be true. Ettlin and Hertwig suggest that, “aware of their limited time and spurred by the desire to transcend the invevitable biological barriers to experiencing the future, older people [might be] more likely to want to travel to the future than younger people.”

Risk. There’s a fundamental asymmetry between the past and the future: the past represents a collection of definitive events, while the future is unpredictable, unknown, and not fixed. The authors reasoned that people who are more actively seek out risk in their daily lives would also be more likely to want to travel to the “less known and predictable future, relative to the more familiar and more predictable past.”

Conservatism/Liberalism. In previous research, conservatism has been linked to an acceptance of inequality as well as a fear of change. Liberalism, by contrast, has been associated with an endorsement of social change and egalitarian attitudes. By this logic, conservative people—compared to those scoring low on conservatism—might prefer to travel back to the past, to the “good old days.”

To test these ideas, Ettlin and Hertwig first asked their research participants whether they would prefer to travel to the past or to the future as an observer (so that they couldn’t also have the opportunity to change the course of history). The research participants then completed standard measures of self-perceived courageousness and risk propensity, as well as a scale that measures political conservatism.

First, there were no statistical differences in overall time travel preference: 47% of the sample wished to travel to the past compared to 53% who wanted to journey ahead to the future. Second, when examining all factors at once, the authors found that there was a trend such that age was linked to a desire to travel to the future rather than the past, as was self-perceived courageousness. Surprisingly, political conservatism was also associated with a preference for future travel, at least weakly. The researchers also analyzed the reasons behind time travel preference and found that 11% wanted to relive a particular episode of the past, 29% wanted to travel to the past to gain some strategic information that could be used in the present, 5% wanted to learn about the future of their children or grandchildren, and 41% wanted to experience great cultural or religious events in either the past or future, and an additional 14% of responses weren’t classifiable.

This initial examination into time travel preferences was obviously exploratory, and thus the results need to be interpreted cautiously until they are replicated in experimental settings. Nonetheless, they provide fascinating insights into the psychology of time travel as well as the preferences of older adults: rather than being stuck in the past, older participants preferred to see ahead to the future. The findings also open up the door to many other possibilities: Are those who desire to travel to the future also the ones who fear death the most? Could prompting mental future time travel assuage such concerns? Along similar lines, does a preference for past time travel correlate with a craving to recapture great moments in time? Could encouraging past time travel alleviate nostalgic longings, or could it intensify them?

Hal E. Hershfield, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business.

more...

Subscribe to The Edge of Choice

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.