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In his now-famous marshmallow study, psychologist Walter Mischel, PhD, presented 4-year-olds with a challenge: Eat one marshmallow now or wait awhile and get two. Some ate their treat immediately, others were able to resist. When Mischel followed up on those children 14 years later, he found dramatic differences between the two groups. Those who had waited were trustworthy, self-reliant and did well in school; those who hadn't waited were impulsive, stubborn, and scored 250 points lower on the SAT on average than the kids who waited.

But, the main difference between those two groups of children, according to Stanford emeritus professor Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, was their time perspective: The ones who could delay their reward are future-oriented in their decision-making, while those who took an immediate reward are chained to their present needs. In fact, Zimbardo maintains that every decision we make is governed by our internal time perspective, a sort of unconscious cognitive response style that's shaped by such factors as family, economics, geography, education and culture.

Each of us needs a healthy balance of past, present and future orientations, Zimbardo said at APA's Annual Convention. Living entirely in one time "zone" can harm your health, relationships and finances, particularly if you become trapped in the darker aspects of a particular time orientation.

"Each of these orientations can be good," said Zimbardo, "but in the negative side, they're terrible."

Hard work vs. hedonism

Tend to be the life of the party and broke? Most such people are present-oriented, Zimbardo said, a trait that has its benefits and pitfalls. Being present-oriented is linked to gambling and risky sex, as well as to binge drinking and drunken driving, according to results from a survey of 1,700 college students, published in Personality and Individual Differences (Vol. 23, No. 6).

Yet present-oriented people are also among the most energetic, friendly, creative and spontaneous, he said.

"These people are the improvisers, the jazz musicians," said Zimbardo. "They love to explore knowledge. If you keep them on a chain, these are the people you want in your business."

Likewise, past-orientation has two extremes. "Past-negative" people believe the good times are behind them or blame the past for present failings. "Past-positive" thinkers have high self-esteem, are patriotic and appreciate wisdom and show gratitude. But either type struggles if they don't vary their stuck-in-the-past orientations, said Zimbardo.

"These are the people who resist change, and in a global world they are going to be left behind," he said.

In terms of life achievement, a penchant for forward thinking is ideal, as shown by Mischel's study, Zimbardo explained. Future-oriented thinkers tend to be successful, save money and make healthy choices. For example, Zimbardo surveyed women in Rome who'd had regular breast cancer screenings and found that the majority were future-oriented. But those who are too future-focused tend to isolate themselves socially and forgo relationships, sex and sleep for work.

"More and more Americans are getting caught in this time crunch, in this future orientation that actually doesn't pay off in the long run," Zimbardo said.

A brighter future

Knowing more about how time perspectives shape decision-making has the potential to help those whose orientation may fail them, Zimbardo pointed out.

For example, research on rehabilitation shows that 50 percent of people who start physical therapy to heal from a surgery or injury drop out, typically because rehab is painful and positive results usually take awhile.

"The one's who don't complete it are likely past- and present-oriented," said Zimbardo. "The ones who do it are the ones who know that someday it will be better even though now it hurts so much."

If physical therapists could gauge in advance which past- or present-oriented patients might be at risk for dropping out early, they could offer interventions to help them tap their future orientation during this time, Zimbardo said.

Ideally, he said, people need to be able to shift perspectives fluidly.

"When there's work to be done, you've got to be future- oriented, but when it's done, take a break, have a massage, reward and indulge the hedonistic side of you," he said. "It's that balance that's critical."

Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, and co-author John Boyd, PhD, explain their time perspective theory in more detail in the book "The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life" (Simon & Schuster, 2008).