I continue to look at expert dimensions of perceiving personality this week — aspects of personality that experts are sensitive to and that may not be as visible to ordinary observers (more background here).

One dimension identified by Professor Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University that seems to fit this category is a person's time perspective. According to Zimbardo's theory and research, people might customarily prefer any of six perspectives on time — two each pertaining to the past, present, and future.

Past-oriented people fall into two categories. "Past Negative" people think mostly about the bad things that happened to them and the good moments that they missed out on. People who are "Past Positive" enjoy stories about the "good old times," remember family rituals that provided meaning and comfort during their childhood, and may be nostalgic for a happy, warm past.

People who live in the present may be "Present Hedonists" — following their hearts rather than their heads, not wanting to miss out on any excitement, and losing track of time. Alternatively, they may be "Present Fatalists," experiencing life as largely a matter of luck, due to forces out of their control, and consequently, seeing little reason to look forward to or plan for the future.

Then, there are people who are in the "Future" category, oriented toward delaying gratification in service of tomorrow. These individuals look forward to the future and believe they have some control over it. Recently, Zimbardo and Boyd have suggested that a second category, "Future Transcendent," may be needed that would cover people who think about an afterlife.

Zimbardo, together with John Boyd (now at Google), developed a scale for measuring these perspectives on time.  Their research examined relationships between the time perspectives people have and their scores on the Big Five personality dimensions (see here). In their 1999 study, Zimbardo and Boyd found that being oriented toward the future was moderately correlated with the Big Five dimension of Conscientiousness.  That study also indicated that a higher score on the Emotional Stability dimension of the Big Five was negatively related to a higher score on the "Past Negative" scale of time perspective (r's of .57 and -45 respectively; references below). Overall, the findings indicated that time orientation was reasonably different from the Big Five personality traits.  That is good, because in order for newly proposed personality dimensions to contribute to our knowledge, the new measures must represent something above and beyond what already is being studied in the field.

Time perspective has been successfully related to health behaviors by Hensen et al. (2006).  Those who score high on a "Present Hedonist" scale drink more alcohol and do so more frequently than others. By contrast, those who are oriented toward the future engage in more positive health-related behaviors.  One reservation is whether these findings are new: For example, other studies indicate that those with a "Present Hedonist" orientation are also high in another personality dimension called sensation-seeking, and that sensation-seeking predicts alcohol abuse as well.  Because this study did not control for such overlaps, it is unclear whether the time perspective approach adds new information as of yet.

In a study coauthored with Zimbardo, E. Alison Holman, a professor at UC Irvine, found that both "Past Positive" and "Future" time perspectives were associated with social support from family, friends, acquaintances and spouses. People who had a stronger "Past Negative" perspective had less family support.  People who had a stronger "Present Hedonist" perspective had support from their friends, but not as much from their family or significant others.

There seems to be considerable promise to this work — warranting further research with greater controls for related personality dimensions. Professor Zimbardo has connected his interest in time dimensions to his own life — as perhaps we might relate them to our own lives. He describes being raised "as a poor kid in a south Bronx ghetto," in a Sicilian family. He and his family members, he said, "...lived in the past and present...". Matters changed for him, he said, when his teachers intervened, explaining to him that if he worked toward the future, then great things might happen (and they did). You can hear Professor Zimbardo discussing his idea of time perspective in a 7-minute lecture he delivered at the TED conference here.


Zimbardo, P. G., & Boyd, J. N. (1999). Putting time in perspective: a valid, reliable individual-differences metric. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1271-1288

Henson, J. M., Carey, M. P., Carey, K. B., & Maisto, S. A. (2006). associations among health behaviors and time perspective in young adults: model testing with boot-strapping replication. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 29, 127-137.

Holman, E. A., & Zimbardo, P. G., (2009). The social language of time: the time perspective-social network connection. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 31:136-147, 2009

Copyright © 2010 by John D. Mayer

Most Recent Posts from The Personality Analyst

Six Lessons Preschoolers Learn about Personality

What children learn can teach scientists about personal intelligence

Can You Tell the Cat Lovers From the Dog Lovers?

Looking for clues to personality in a person's choice of pets

What You Can Learn From a Handshake

Was your parents' advice right?