Are You a Prisoner of Your Past?

Prospection theory gives us hope to imagine a better future.

Posted Jan 30, 2020

We can either become prisoners of our past or learn from it — depending upon how we view it. Many of us default to dwelling on our problems and get stuck in a mental rut, which can lead to depression.  In our last post, we discussed the difference between reflecting and ruminating

Don't get stuck gazing in the rearview mirror of your life.
Source: Pexels

Instead, consciously reflecting on our past may help us see the behaviors and habits that no longer serve us. We can then apply what we learned to create new ways of doing things in the future.  

Reflecting, unlike ruminating, can help us sharpen our vision so we can see the past more accurately, which may enable us to see the present more clearly. However, we don’t want to stop there. How can we notice possibilities that lie ahead rather than be prisoners of our past? 

For many years, the way scientists viewed behavior was predominantly as actions driven by the past. While habits and drives do play a role in our lives, that’s just a fraction of the big picture. How we learn and what motivates us is more nuanced and involves additional factors. 

“Being driven by the past is as unsuitable as a framework for living as it is for theorizing,” argues University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues in their seminal paper on this important topic. 

Instead, Seligman introduces a new promising framework, Prospection theory, which frees us from our past and gives us hope to imagine and build a better future. 

What is prospection?

In brief, prospection is the “mental representation and evaluation of possible futures, including such functions as planning, prediction, and daydreaming. This ability fundamentally shapes human cognition, emotion, and motivation, and yet remains an understudied field of research,” Seligman states on his Authentic Happiness website. 

Over the last few decades, social science has focused on how the past determines the present and the future. Seligman is looking to change this precedent by moving prospection to the center of research on human action.

“How does thinking about the future shape present and future behavior?” 

This is a central question of Seligman’s that he is continuing to explore through his ongoing research work.  

In his foundational paper on the topic, Seligman and his colleagues state, “It is clear from daily life how much people’s evaluations, imaginations, and choices make a difference.  Hoping, planning, saving for a rainy day, worrying, striving, voting, risking or minimizing risk, even undertaking therapy, all have in common the presupposition that which future will come about is contingent on our deliberation and action…Prospection is not mysterious, and navigating in light of prospection is at the very core of human action." 

"After over 150 years of failing to establish that the past drives human action” Seligman and his colleagues conclude, “the old, backward-looking framework is no longer productive and that the new, forward-looking framework has much brighter prospects." 

What does prospection theory mean for us and how does it affect our lives? 

Rather than getting habitually stuck gazing in the rearview mirror at our missteps in an attempt to untangle the past and understand our present, how about pivoting our stance to look straight ahead at the many possibilities in front of us? 

Source: Pexels

Take a moment to imagine a brighter future. What do you see? How can you tap your potential to get there? What choices and changes do you need to create a better future? 

It may be a simple physical action. Or, perhaps a more challenging emotional or mental shift that helps you build more strength and resilience in your life. 

Now take time to prospect for a moment. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is one specific behavior you can adopt into your life to help you achieve your goals? 
  •  What can you do differently to bring you closer to the person you want to become?

For example, if we want to become physically stronger and fitter, instead of defaulting to the same monotonous workout routine that is no longer producing results, how about switching things up a bit? Perhaps trying something new like Suzie did when she somewhat cautiously enrolled in her first [Solidcore] workout. 

 Suzie Pileggi Pawelski
Suzie trying something new: [solidcore}!
Source: Suzie Pileggi Pawelski

Or, perhaps the change we want is on a deeper psychological or emotional level. Maybe we tend towards anxiety when attempting to assert ourselves at work or in our personal relationships due to some deep-seated beliefs based on our childhood experiences. 

It’s important to continue any therapeutic work we may be underdoing to help manage our excessive worry. We might also try applying prospection theory to help free us from our anxious past by working on our chronic expectations and false beliefs that something awful is going to happen.

In disorders like anxiety, Seligman and his colleagues argue that “what has gone wrong is a maladaptive (and often mistaken) if–then prospection.” For example, we may believe that “if I ever speak up at work or to my spouse, then I will get yelled at like I did as a kid.”

No doubt the past plays a large role in creating many of our beliefs. However, the researchers conjecture that  “working directly on the mistaken belief about the future will be at least as effective as revisiting the source of the belief, which is often inaccessibly buried under the detritus of the past.”

There are many ways that a therapist can assist the patient with maladaptive prospection. One way is by disconfirming unrealistic prospections. Let’s put it into practice using the above if-then example.

For those of us who tend to have anxious thoughts, we may think, "I ever speak up, I will get yelled at." This prospection is an unrealistic distortion. If this prospection personally resonates with us we can practice speaking up more at work and at home. We will likely notice that we rarely ever, if at all,   are getting yelled at which will disconfirm our distortion. 

As creatures of habits, we are often resistant to physical and emotional change even when our past behaviors no longer serve us.  However, once we open ourselves up to seeing possibilities and begin doing things differently, we are no longer stuck in a rut.

Rather, we can move forward in life building and prospecting a brighter future, cultivating stronger and more satisfying relationships. 


Authentic Happiness Website:

Seligman, M.E.P.,  Railton, P., Baumeister, R.F., & Sripada, C. Navigating Into the Future or Driven by the Past. Perspectives on Psychological Science 2013 8: 119

Seligman, M.E.P., (2018). The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist's Journey from Helplessness to Optimism. New York: Hachette Book Group. 

Pileggi Pawelski, S. & Pawelski, J. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcherPerigee.