The Future and The Past Both Suck


Ready to go deep on our perception of time?

There's a now famous study conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel, PhD. He presented 4-year olds a challenge. Eat one marshmallow now or be patient and get two. Some caved, others waited.

The juicy bit here is what happened 14 years later when Mischel followed up with the kids. "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."

The main difference between the two; their perspective of time.

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, Stanford emeritus professor Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, 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.

Now, let's try something. Think back to any new years resolution you have ever made. Did it go how you thought? Has it EVER gone how you thought?

Our perception of time is wonky. We really have no way of predicting the future. "According to psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson in a seminal 2007 paper about experiencing the future: The futures people dream up in the "now" elicit emotional reactions that help inform their decision-making. They termed this process “prospection.'”

Prospection argues that the biggest problem with trying to predict the future is that we believe the impacts of things that will happen will have a larger emotional impact on us than is actually true. If we lose our job, or get broken up our life is over. If we win the lottery we'll be forever happy.


Here's one more to chew on. In 2013 Giles Story attached electrodes that would deliver electric shocks to the hands of 35 subjects, inflicting minor pain that ranged from a slight buzz to something that felt like a strong insect bite. The subjects got to choose between receiving milder shocks after an interval as long as 15 minutes or stronger shocks more immediately. Most subjects opted to receive the more-intense stimuli right away rather than experience the dread of waiting for less intense ones.

The question Dr. Story was trying to answer; Is the expectation of pain worse than the actual pain itself? Should we meet the unpleasant head-on, and just get it over with? Put simply, can we measure dread?

And what happened... A full 70% of the time our subjects opted to receive more-painful shocks right away rather than wait for less painful shocks in the near future. We infer from this that dread—the anticipation of negative outcomes—is a powerful force.

Ok, so.. what does all this mean.

If there is a god, they did a nice job of setting up a cosmic fuck sandwich that requires us to be present and plan for the future, yet not stress about the future because the outcomes likely won't be as intense as we imagine nor will most smaller outcomes matter in the long run anyway.

“When you're not focused on the future and you're able to think about the present more, that's when you go more into problem-solving and solution-focused thinking rather than the anxious thinking that really doesn't end up serving you,” Motakef said. She suggested setting aside a dedicated “worry hour”—a discrete block of time where you can stress out, journal, dream up worst-case scenarios, then exorcise those thoughts from the rest of your day.

So when you count down the last few days of 2020 and start thinking about the grandeur vision of 2021, remember to keep yourself in check when you're thinking about your place in time. Are you dwelling on the past? Are you trying to predict the future? Do you have anxiety about one or both? Are you presently making choices to create a better future? Are you abstaining form eating the marshmallow for a better tomorrow?

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