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Rethinking Time: A PeopleScience Table Talk

Jeff Kreisler
Jeff Kreisler
Editor PeopleScience.com and Co-Author “Dollars and Sense”

I’m a lucky man. Somehow I get to talk to amazing people about really fascinating, inspiring and thought-provoking topics.  Conversations with people-I-have-no-right-to-consider-peers who’ve had their own insights triggered by new ideas and new discoveries. We try to create that experience here on this website and in our live PeopleScience Table Talks, and now we’re trying something new.

Hal Hershfield, associate professor of marketing and behavioral decisions at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, has been part of some important experiments involving time and how our connection to and perceptions of it impact our choices. His work and those of his peers have already changed the design of products, services and organizations, and I can only imagine the major impact they’ll have in the future. It’s heady, intellectual, future-focused stuff with major real-world potential. (He’s luckier than I am.)

Last year, he told me about a paper Cassie Mogilner, Jennifer Aaker and he wrote about time,  Rethinking Time: Implications for Well-Being. No matter your professional or personal status, there’s a lot of powerful concepts here to chew on.

From the abstract:

How people think about and use their time has critical implications for happiness and well being… Drawing on research on emotions, social relationships, and financial decision-making, we discuss how removing categorical dichotomies might lead to beneficial outcomes. From this, we propose a conceptualization of time that assumes a less stark contrast between the present and the future, allowing these two timeframes to more flexibly co-exist in people’s minds and experiences. Finally, we discuss one way people might adopt this perspective to increase happiness –– by taking an elevated or “bird’s-eye” perspective of time where the future and present, as well as the past, become equally visible, and where events from different time points are treated and experienced as part of one’s life and being overall.

I wanted to talk to the authors about it, and I wanted to hear not just their voices and mine, but also those of other geniuses who know more than I do. So I pulled together a few folks to share their thoughts and time …  on thinking about time.

We’re lucky to have Longpath’s Ari Wallach, Kimberly Wade-Benzoni – associate professor of business administration and ethics scholar at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University – and Laurie Paul – professor of philosophy at Yale University – joining Professor Hershfield and me in this conversation. Yes, one of the authors of the paper, a practitioner working with these principles, an ethics and business professor and a philosophy expert. That's a pretty good lineup. And me.

TLDR: There are some amazing ideas in this talk. Watch, listen to and/or read about them below.

I want PeopleScience to be a space for cool conversations about big ideas. When I’m a zillionaire, I’ll bring these people – and all of you – into some wood-paneled study as we lounge on deep leather seats, talking big ideas while sipping scotch by a crackling fire. Until then, this virtual PeopleScience Table Talk will have to do.

We’ve got a video, an audio version for your podcast pleasure, and a cleaned up transcript to read and/or follow along. You can read the paper, too.

Don’t just enjoy this and get your mind blown, but please also give us feedback and ideas for this format. It could be really cool. Yes, it could also be shorter to fit your attention span, but, is it actually long or is that just your perception of time?


The Video:


The Audio:


The Transcript:

Jeff Kreisler, PeopleScience.com: Welcome to the first PeopleScience Virtual Table Talk. Today we're going to talk about a new paper called “Rethinking time: Implications for Wellbeing” by Cassie Mogilner, Hal Hershfield and Jennifer Aaker. Joining us is one of the coauthors of the paper, Hal Hershfield. Hal is an associate professor of marketing and behavioral decision making at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. We’re also joined by Ari Wallach. Ari spent over a decade working at the intersection of innovation and strategy and social change. He recently founded an initiative focused on cultivating long-term ways of thinking, being and behaving in the individual, organizational and societal realms. Next, we have Kimberly Wade-Benzoni, associate professor of business administration and ethics scholar at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. And finally, Laurie Paul, professor of philosophy at Yale University.

Dan Ariely and I wrote a book about how consumers are affected by behavioral economics. We realized that even those who were educated and knew the best decisions to make still faced the issue of self-control. They still didn't make the best decisions, particularly when it came to things like savings and retirement. And one of the big factors was a disconnect between their present selves and their future selves – they didn't value their future selves as much as they did their present selves, which is called hyperbolic discounting. Dan suggested I contact a professor by the name of Hal Hirschfeld, who’s done some fascinating work on using technology and other ways to help us connect to our future selves and how that might impact our financial behavior. Then I learned that Hal had written this amazing new paper, a theoretical paper – he'll tell us more  – about how we can rethink how we think about time and how it has implications for us not just financially, but throughout our lives. So to begin, I'd like Hal to give a brief overview of how the paper came about and what’s discussed in it.

Hal Hershfield, UCLA: Thanks so much for organizing, Jeff. Thanks Kim, Ari and Lori for participating.

So Cassie Mogilner Holmes, my colleague at UCLA, and Jennifer Aaker, our colleague at Stanford, had been talking for a while about the way that time is treated in the literature. We started with the idea that a lot of researchers in social psychology, marketing, behavioral economics, management, philosophy, et cetera, have written about the topic of time and how people deal with it. But there hasn't been much synthesis of the literature in the last 10 or 20 years. We thought this might be a good time to step back and read what's been written, and see how the topic has been treated.

In doing so, we recognized a couple of things. One, time comes up in these sub-disciplines in relation to the ways that people have difficulties dealing with it. So we have time pressure. We don't feel like we have enough time. We overweight the present and underweight the future. What seems to occur is that people make wildly different decisions for things that are occurring right now in the present, compared with thinking about those same things in the future. You often see this dichotomy between the “now” or the “present” and other points in time, whether it's the past or the future. Much of the research has really dealt with now and later, but I think you can make an equally well-reasoned case for now and something that happened in the past.

Most people think about everything that's right in front of us, where the present is all-encompassing and the past and future seem to fade off into the distance.

Creating these sort of distinctions between now and later, between the present and the future or the present and the past, may set us up for difficulty. I think the idea that we are grappling with is that when we set up these sorts of dichotomies between now and later, people end up thinking about many of their decisions in terms of a “whether.” Whether I should do this thing, or not. Whether I should spend the extra money, or not. Whether I should suffer right now to feel better later. Whether I should eat this chocolate dessert – and it’s always a chocolate dessert – right now.

This sort of “whether” distinction may not be the best distinction. A different way of looking at time could be one in which we say “when” more. So, thinking, “OK, if I'm going to look at my life in general, when am I doing X and when am I doing Y?” and sort of distributing punishments and rewards, or sacrifices and rewards, over time. In the paper, we essentially frame this as either having what we call a “ground-level perspective,” which is what we speculate is the way most people walk through life – that is, thinking about everything that's right in front of us, where the present is sort of all-encompassing and the past and future seem to fade off into the distance. Or, having more of what we're calling a “bird's-eye view perspective,” where we can step away and see how everything is connected in our lives. I think the analogy that Cassie came up with was taking more of a “mosaic perspective.”

A different way of looking at time could be one in which we say “when” more.

This is very much a theoretical paper, where we were trying to synthesize the literature and come up with a slightly different way of thinking about time. We haven't yet empirically tested whether or not the so-called “bird's-eye view perspective” could lead to better outcomes – namely, less stress, more patient decision making, possibly increased wellbeing. We have some early pilot data suggesting that, if we can measure somebody's tendency to think one way versus another, those who tend to take the bird's-eye view perspective seem to have higher levels of wellbeing. But we haven't yet figured out the best way to experimentally induce these perspectives.

Jeff Kreisler: Since you brought up the fact that it is theoretical, I’m going to turn now to Laurie, because I’d love to get her perspective as a philosopher. We'll get to some of the practical things and applications in a moment, but thinking about this elevated perspective of time – whether it's across one's life or across a year – what are the implications for you and your work potentially, and how does this match up with other things that you've seen in your study of time in the way people approach their decisions?

Laurie Paul, Yale University: I think the paper is super interesting, and it does connect with a lot of philosophical topics about time and temporal experience and also about decision-making. In some of the work where I talk about our temporal perspective, we talk about this problem – that we have a tendency to throw our future selves under the bus. I agree that the key to thinking about this issue involves having a more nuanced perspective, like taking the bird's-eye point of view.

But I also think that work in philosophy suggests that you need to coordinate that with the on-the-ground perspective. I don't think you're suggesting that we have to do anything other than that, but it's not just a bird's-eye view and it's not just having the immersed-in-time view, but rather coordinating between the two.

Think about what you're suggesting as analogous to what we get when we use Google Maps. What you want is the spatial array, to see the terrain that you're on. And then you need to locate yourself on the map, because if you have a map and you don't know where you are, the map is totally useless. On the other hand, if you haven't got a map, then you can't make plans and goals because you don't know which direction you have to go. So what you're saying is, look, we need a temporal map perspective as well as focusing on where we're located on the map, and I think that's exactly right.

Think about what you're suggesting as analogous to what we get when we use Google Maps.

Here’s a temporal analogy. If you think about old stories like the Rip van Winkle story, or Ripley in one of the Aliens movies, when she goes into hyperspace. When they wake up, the first thing they want to know is, What time is it? What year is it? If you don't know when you are, you can't plan. You can't act. Or similarly, you get immersed in a really good book and then suddenly you look up: What time is it? So you have your immediate sense, but you don't know what the clock time is. You look at your watch, you coordinate between your immersed time and your map sense.

Philosophers talk about this as indexicality. And I think what you're pointing out is that it's really important to have both this agential or immersed view, as well as a more observational or map perspective. In computer games, the same thing happens: you occupy the boots of your character, but then you also have the map, and you coordinate your actions by coordinating between the two.

I've worked on these issues, and I like to think about them a lot with respect to time and space and self. But I also work on transformative experience and decision-making. We are sometimes faced with transformative experiences, which are life-changing and radical, and the thought is that when there are new kinds of changes for us, we can't know what to expect. We might know, through testimony from others, what is going to happen when we become new parents or emigrate to another country or descend into Alzheimer's, for example. But we don't know what it’s going to be like for us, specifically, and so there is an epistemic dimension that we can't plan for in the ordinary way. That doesn't mean we can't plan; it's just that there is a way of recognizing a certain kind of unknowability and uncertainty that's coming down the pike and then preparing ourselves for that appropriately. One of the things I like about the paper is that I think it brings out the importance of having this kind of map perspective. And when you highlight things that we can't know, it's like there are blank spaces on the map. Knowing that there's a part of the map that you can't navigate is the best preparation. Testimony will help you, but if you can't imaginatively present yourself in that situation or prepare yourself for difficult choices or know what you want to choose in a situation ahead of time, then the best thing to do is to prepare yourself for the unknowability, and that bird's-eye view is really important for that.

There is a way of recognizing a certain kind of unknowability and uncertainty that's coming down the pike and then preparing ourselves for that appropriately.

Jeff Kreisler: Thank you; that was great and it particularly struck a chord with me, the Google Maps analogy. Kim, I’d like to turn to you next. You study the psychology of intergenerational decisions. What are the potential unintended consequences here of taking this perspective? Do you see in your work, or in other areas, anything that might cause hiccups?

Kimberly Wade-Benzoni, Duke University: Thank you for sharing this thought-provoking paper with me and for inviting me to be part of this conversation. The paper was written with a primary focus on individuals, and how adopting the elevated perspective can help people to improve their lives and wellbeing. But as I read through the paper, I automatically processed it with a consideration of broader societal-level issues in mind, and thought about how an elevated perspective of time could potentially affect our behavior and outcomes as a collective.

As I read through the paper, I automatically processed it with a consideration of broader societal-level issues in mind.

Humans have evolved in such a way that putting a stronger focus on the present has helped us to survive. And that instinct is still hardwired in. But we now have an unprecedented ability to affect the future, not just our own but the futures of other people in generations to come. It's ironic that this instinct that has helped us to survive is now not only compromising our ability to thrive as a collective, but also in some domains could conceivably contribute to our extinction. So it's like our instincts aren't synchronized with our ability to affect the future. They haven't caught up. Also, because of our unprecedented ability to affect the future on a mass global scale, that it would be great if the elevated perspective could incorporate an even more holistic perspective that included other people as well as oneself.

The figures in the paper are very effective in capturing and conveying the ideas, and I really like the idea mentioned at the end of the paper, of people being able to shift more flexibly between perspectives. I'm worried about the person “on the cloud” staying there all the time because of the risk of dwelling too much in the past, or finding the future so daunting that it actually hinders action in the present. The past is relevant; we can learn from the past, but we don't want to dwell in it. And we can actually change our perceptions and memory of the past. But the past has a different type of importance. And, the future isn't relevant if we don't survive in the present. So that's important to acknowledge as well.

It's like our instincts aren't synchronized with our ability to affect the future. They haven't caught up.

It’s helpful for the person to get up on the cloud, gain perspective, understanding and motivation and strategize about what to do in the present to account for the future. But I also thought that he or she should climb down, and sometimes focus on the present, to get things done and survive. On the other hand, short-termism, as Ari has pointed out in his work, is such a huge obstacle and challenge that if we strive for the elevated perspective, we might naturally achieve just the right balance.

I think people need optimism biases about the past and the future in order to persist. If we think about what needs to be done for the future to be healthy or viable as a society, it can be so daunting that it can be incapacitating. So get the elevated perspective long enough to figure out what we need to do in the present and to gain the future you desire or envision. But then don't dwell on it so much that it causes you to give up hope because it's not totally clear how to make it attainable. So take a look at the monthly calendar, but then get back to your day or week view.

Take a look at the monthly calendar, but then get back to your day or week view.

As we figure out how to get people to the elevated perspective, we also need to figure out how to help people switch back and forth, and how to figure out just the right amount or the right times for switching perspectives. With respect to getting to that elevated perspective, leveraging what we know about legacies is promising. Research on legacies shows that when people think about their legacy, it simultaneously gets them to be more “other oriented” and more future oriented; it blurs the lines between self and other, present and future. It helps brings others and the future closer to us, and reflecting on their legacy can help people get on their elevated time perspective even more holistically, considering the past, present and future for themselves and others. It also helps to assuage the death anxiety associated with the passage of time, which was mentioned at the end of the paper.

Jeff Kreisler: Thank you so much, Kim. When you talk about people getting stuck on the cloud – when we take this idea and try to make it more practical or apply it, it seems like it's going to be very personalized. We often talk in behavioral science in general that you have to think about the context of applying a principle. But here it's almost down to the individual. You know, how do you react? Do you get stuck? Do you get fearful of the future? Ari, with that sort of background, I want to turn to you. Tell us a bit more about Longpath and your work. As I understand it, you work to help people take a broader perspective. What was your reaction to the paper, and where do you see potential and pitfalls?

Ari Wallach, Longpath Labs: Thank you. I'm excited to be invited to this illustrious group and talking about this topic. The work that we're doing at Longpath Labs is specifically around how do we foster long-term thinking in individuals, organizations and society, but around a very kind of non-mundane goal, which is to ensure the human species thriving over the next several hundred years. Our contention is if we do not have a mindset shift that involves being able to take this perspective at the individual and higher levels, we are in for some very rough times as a species on this planet. The work that we're doing is about how you develop a mindset that allows you to go up to the cloud, come back down and then also connect it with your own sense of purpose and goals as well.

My first reaction to this paper: I was surprised and delighted that it was coming mostly from professors who were at a business school, because the dichotomy that we’ve structured between present and future is a scarcity mindset in many ways; it’s what drives current GDP consumption patterns. The idea that “You need to have this right now to be happy.” If this was to be blown up further and truly scaled, it could potentially be very disruptive of current economic patterns in this country, which rely on people being forced to make a decision between present self and future self, mostly gearing towards the present, and basically buying stuff they don't need but which fuels the economy. So in some ways, this paper feels like it should have come out of the philosophy department, not Stanford Business School.

In some ways, this paper feels like it should have come out of the philosophy department, not Stanford Business School.

So what jumped out at me right away was blowing past the dichotomy, and what does that do for business in general. And to that end, how have we as a society been calibrated to think in a binary way and therefore it's not so much that we're having to go to something new, it's that we're returning to something very old. This “now and later,” cyclical way of thinking was how we were from probably 120,000 years ago up until 10,000 or 12,000 years ago, when we hit the agricultural revolution, and we had to start thinking in more sharp, contrasted ways.

Jeff Kreisler: Thanks everyone. Hal, in a second I'll give you an opportunity to maybe respond or add onto a few of the thoughts that come up.

Hal Hirschfield: These thoughts are great. I love the idea that both Laurie and Kim are talking about, of this being an ability to shift between these different perspectives. I love the Google Maps analogy. I think that is really apt for what we're talking about here.

In a lot of the work that's gone into this paper, we call for people to be more future-oriented. But what's rarely written about is the idea that it's not that we're asking people to shift all the way to being future-oriented, but having some balance. I'm fond of saying that if you are only future oriented, you can end up later in life with no memories to look back on and you sort of hurt your future self another way. I think Kim's point was really sharp: the dominant mode of thinking can be so ground-level that if we shift a little bit, I don’t know that we’d be in danger of having people only be on the elevated perspective or only be future-oriented. It may just actually naturally cause them to be more future-balanced, if you will.

It's not that we're asking people to shift all the way to being future-oriented, but having some balance.

Laurie's point about transformative experiences and knowing that you might not be able to know what is to come is a fascinating idea and one that I think gets under-examined in the literature. We might not know our future preferences – once we become our future selves, those very preferences may change. Knowing that there is unknowability is another way of saying that there can be some balance between now and the future, and this is something that we have to allow for.

We can have a map, but parts of the map might not be totally colored in, but we know something exists there. I think that dovetails really well with a lot of what Kim has talked about in her research and what Ari does in practice, which is to say that these whole groups of people who we don't know, we don't know their preferences, but we know that it's going to be important that they survive. And Kim's point about trying to bring in legacy motivations is really smart, because implicit in that is the idea that there has to be some balance between what exists now and what exists later, and to some extent what exists in the past. If we start thinking about the legacy we're leaving, we're also thinking about the legacy that's been left for us.

And Ari's perspective, that this is a collective issue, is really important – I think you’re talking almost from a macroeconomic standpoint. You think, what are the infrastructure, societal norms and pressures that give rise to the dichotomous thinking that make it so hard to take this slightly different perspective, and are there ways to change those?

Jeff Kreisler: Does anyone have any particular strong reaction to anything?

Laurie Paul: When I read the paper, I thought that there was a natural connection not just to time, but as a philosopher would say, modality – in other words, possibility. And that's been embedded in the things that you're talking about because decision-making, especially under standard models, involves uncertainty. It's not just that there's one future self, but there are many possible future selves. And part of taking a bird's-eye view isn't just stepping back and looking at your future life at future times, but also looking at possible future times and trying to decide which future self to make actual. Correct? So I guess I thought that a natural way to read the next step, or some sort of an implicit part of your project, was to say that we take a bird's-eye view not just of ourselves in time, but of ourselves in terms of possibility.

Decision-making, especially under standard models, involves uncertainty. It's not just that there's one future self, but there are many possible future selves.

When I’m thinking about various things I'm doing, I'm sort of charting a path through a field of possibilities. This is a metaphor that sometimes comes up in various kinds of contexts. And I have to choose how I want to chart my path, and to be able to do that, I need to have a sense of the different kinds of possibilities that I'm considering. If I’m just focusing on the actual, and I don’t take the bird's-eye point of view, then I won't perform as rationally as I need to in order to make down-the-line investment decisions. So I just want to make sure that this is part of the picture that you wanted to endorse, because I think that also makes perfect sense, and it sounds like a really nice, practical way of embedding a lot of theoretical insights.

Hal Hirschfield: That's absolutely right. You could take the sort of deterministic perspective that everything is laid out and take the bird's-eye view – you know, this is where the Google map analogy almost breaks down, because it’s not that everything is perfectly laid out here. It’s not something that we had made explicit, and perhaps it should be, that part of taking this perspective is recognizing that things could go in multiple different directions.

Laurie Paul: Think of when you're thinking about doing a renovation on your house. And the architect brings out a bunch of different plans. First you have to imagine yourself in each possible new breakfast nook, or whatever it is. If an architect only puts one set of plans before you, then you need a new architect. You need to have possibilities presented to you so that you can plan effectively.

Jeff Kreisler: Thinking about the uncertain future resonated with me because there was a point in the paper where you talked about how thinking this way could reduce stress and guilt. For example, we could think well, I’ll spend time with my kids later even if I’m not doing it now. Is that the only practical application to help us cope better with our present decisions, or are there broader applications, given all the uncertainty? Ari and Kim, I wonder if either of you have any sort of perspective on what we could do, given the philosophical and theoretical view. What can we do to apply this or what do we need to be aware of or sort out?

Kimberly Wade Benzoni: I thought about this paper so much. I was thinking about it in the middle of the night last night. We have developed this really effective legacy induction task, which I think is going to get people on that elevated perspective at least for a little while. But we have to know how to determine how you got to the elevated perspective. So Hal, I'm wondering if you have started to develop some way to measure that, and also I'm just interested in your ideas about what we know from other behavioral science that can be leveraged to facilitate this process. I think if we put your measures together with my legacy primes, we’re going to get results. I'm sure you have already been doing some of this with your piloting.

Hal Hirschfield: That’s exactly what we're thinking. Cassie, Jennifer and I, and our doctoral student Joseph Reiff, have been trying to figure out OK, so how can we measure this? And then, how can we try to manipulate this – get somebody onto this perspective or not. We have just started piloting different ways of saying, to what extent do people agree with various statements that come out of the theoretical writing, to what extent do you think of your life and these mosaic patterns, or think about the past present and future together.

We’ve been trying to measure this alongside other social, psychological or even just behavioral individual differences, you know things like “Are you more of an abstract thinker, or concrete level thinker?” I think something that comes up in the literature is that there's some relation between this and construal level theory, which looks at the extent to which we see things more abstractly or more concretely. And we're getting some additional evidence that we can at least keep this apart from some of the other existing individual difference measures that may be out there.

There's some relation between this and construal level theory, which looks at the extent to which we see things more abstractly or more concretely.

One thing we’re grappling with is that context matters. It may be the case that some people are more prone to this way of thinking generally speaking, or it may be the case that some people are more prone to this way of thinking in certain decision-making contexts versus others. And I think Kim, this is where you're saying empirical work can inform or form theory; it's something that we don't know the answer to. Your idea about trying to induce or use the legacy primes as a way of manipulating this is spot on. We hadn't considered that.

Jeff Kreisler: Ari, I’d love to have you jump in.

Ari Wallach: Because I'm coming to this conversation as a non-academic, I'm not bound by the same rules in terms of having to get all the ducks in a row before we go out into the field and start testing. So we created interventions around this, and we are already testing them. We’re running these workshops called the Longpath Journey that are being beta tested. They're wrapped around this idea of being a long-path thinker – people have empathy for their current self, but also empathy for past selves and the legacy they've inherited, as well as the legacy they want to live out in their current day to day – what they give to future generations. We ask them to go about a hundred years back and a hundred years in the future, based on current life expectancy. Our thinking is that you will be able to make better decisions today and have a more meaningful life today if you understand where you come in a chain of being. Now the issue that arises, and I'm sure Kim is thinking this right now, is that when we prime people around either legacy priming or to take this meta-cloud perspective that's transgenerational in their being, so they become more like links in a chain, that it gets them to have to think about their own mortality and their own death. The research shows that when people are asked to come face-to-face with their own death, they can actually become more short-term in their thinking.

So the question is, how do we build a series of interventions that allow them to take this transgenerational empathic view of the world in their decision making, but at the same time taking into account that they’re going to run up against their own mortality, which may have the inverse effect that we're trying to cause. We’re testing guided visualizations with hundreds of people as they're wrestling with the kind of denial of death-ism that comes into play when you ask people to take a certain bird's-eye view of not only their own life, but a bigger life in general.

How do we build a series of interventions that allow them to take this transgenerational empathic view of the world in their decision making, but at the same time…

Thinking about this paper, how far out can they go on the map before they have to hit their own death, and can they transcend that, or does it cause them to recoil and become even more presentist?

Jeff Kreisler: That’s fascinating. Ironically, I want to be respectful of everyone's time and this feels like it could be Part 1 of 100 talks on this, so I'm going to go around and give everyone a chance to give their final thoughts.

Laurie Paul: I've really enjoyed the conversation and was very pleased to be invited and involved. With respect to my own work, I think the paper is super interesting, really relevant and we were discussing this idea of the unknowability and basically understanding how you have to respond in the moment, but then adjudicating that both from being immersed and having the bird's-eye point of view. The empirical discussion also was really interesting, and I'd love to see how some of these possibilities play out. Especially some of the sociological elements of Ari’s remarks. I think there's another tie-in here to some philosophical discussions about meritivity, and meritivity of the self in time. There’s a way of thinking about constructing oneself and building one's self when you're constructing the story of your life. It's not just about being in the moment, but it's also about stepping back and taking control of the story that you're telling and trying to kind of make the best decisions. Choose your own adventure. When you're choosing your own adventure, take the bird's-eye point of view so that you get the best possible outcome, at least according to your life.

Kimberly Wade Benzoni: In my research, both empirically and theoretically, we have used death primes to enact legacy motivations, but we’ve also developed a prime that does not bring up death. We have people think about how they want to be remembered and what kind of impact they will have on the future. There’s two kinds of death awareness: death anxiety and death reflection. You can differentially prime them. Death anxiety leads people to be more self-focused and self-protective, but if you can prime death reflection, it gets people thinking in ways of how to make their life meaningful, rather than how to “live it up before I die.” It’s a cool cognitive process, rather than a hot visceral focus.

Also, sometimes what looks like present focus is you acting out or implementing what you figured out when you were on the cloud, in the elevated perspective. For example, you might be ignoring everything else and trying to make a deadline, not spending time with the kids, not sleeping, not going for a run because you're trying to get this paper out the door. Because that's what you have to do. You've got to go from your month view to your day view to meet that deadline, which enables you in the big picture to get tenure so you can support your children better. So balance can be understood, rather than as a day-to-day thing, as chapters in your life. And you get balance over time. So in some chapters, you need to spend more time on your work; some chapters, there are health emergencies; some chapters, you spend more time with your kids. It might look like you're ignoring other important things in the present, but really you're implementing that bigger view. Strategize, but then get down from there and focus on what you need to do to implement that strategy.

It might look like you're ignoring other important things in the present, but really you're implementing that bigger view.

Ari Wallach: What this paper made me think of was a visualization of going higher up, but based on the comments I just heard, especially from Kimberly, there's an element of this that is actually about becoming more fractal in your moment to moment. So it's both potentially gaining perspective but then also recognizing that every moment is in the present, and you are here. This perspective, this now and later, makes any moment ostensibly fractal in that it also contains the moments that came before and all the moments that are to come. Obviously, we take a lot of this from Eastern modalities and ways of thinking, but what this paper can do is not only increase happiness and lower stress, but also permit a true state of presence in the moment, by de-entangling the anxiety about potentials and what is to come as opposed to just where you are right now.

What the paper kind of hints at is that we’re in a very specific moment in time – this year. It’s what we call the intertidal. We have several hundred years of values and norms and narratives about how we should be and could be, and all that is kind of coming to an end, if you will. And what is to come next? We don't know, but what's been laid out by this paper is ways of thinking and contemplating that potentially can take away the anxiety of what is to know. There's this saying going around right now: “The official future is dead, long live the futures” – with an “s,” a plurality. I think this type of mindset and perspective can ease the anxiety of knowing and make it OK to not know what is to come, because it takes away the pressure of having to know exactly what you’re going to do, which is the way we’ve been trained to think the past couple of hundred years. I'm thankful for having been included in this conversation. Thank you.

This type of mindset and perspective can ease the anxiety of knowing and make it OK to not know what is to come.

Hal Hirschfield: In an earlier version of the paper, we were trying to put our finger on what exactly we were talking about. We had started talking about the idea of the past and the future blending together and that you know that the future is the present, the present the future, et cetera. And then we realized that that's not really the right analogy, that it's really more of this idea that there's a sense of coexistence between the past and present and the present and future and multiple futures. Kim's point is a good one – you can get down and do something that may be really necessary for right now, still keeping the future in mind, and you can also step up and say “I need to step back and do something that's better for the long run,” compared to what's maybe good for right now.

The idea that we're trying to grapple with is more balance and coexistence, and essentially blending. There's a lot of work to be done, both on an empirical level and also on a continued theoretical one, to figure out exactly the contexts we're talking about when this might be useful. What outcomes may arise from this, what outcomes can’t be touched on, and can this expand out to more of the collective rather than just the personal? So let me thank you all; this has been a great conversation and it's helped my thinking. I'll go back to my coauthors and talk about this as well, so thank you.

Jeff Kreisler: Thank you all for joining us. Once again: Hal Hirschfield, Laurie Paul, Kimberly Wade-Benzoni and Ari Wallach. And I'm Jeff Kreisler for PeopleScience.

Jeff Kreisler
Jeff Kreisler
Editor PeopleScience.com and Co-Author “Dollars and Sense”


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