Scholars of memory can draw on a rich pool of research on the processes and structures that support memory, observed Marshall Haith, PhD, speaking at APA's 2000 Annual Convention Aug. 48. But when it comes to future-oriented thinking, "We have no taxonomy...no information about the biochemical agents that support future thinking, and only some hints about the neural structures that underlie these capabilities," said Haith, a University of Denver psychologist and this year's winner of the G. Stanley Hall Award for Distinguished Contribution to Developmental Psychology.
"We claim that future thinking distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom," he said. "Yet very little research or conceptualization exists to help us think about such matters."
In a program of research that has spanned more than three decades, Haith has explored how babies think about the future. His research has revealed, he said, that "Infants are keen observers of their world, and gain some cognitive mastery over it by forming expectations."
In his lecture, Haith speculated that infants' ability to use their experience to predict future events allows greater efficiency and control over the environment.
"It's exhausting to be a slave to the world and simply react to everything as it happens," he said. "Infants lighten their load, I believe, by staying a step ahead of the flow."
Haith also outlined recent research examining the role parents play in shaping young children's forecasting abilities. He and his colleagues have found that even before children can talk, parents are talking to them about the future at least five to seven times more than they talk about the past. This early exposure to future-oriented thinking, Haith suggested, helps prepare children to think about what is to come.
"Kids are in a bath of future talk, Haith said, "and it helps them to learn about the future."