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How Countries and People Perceive Time Influences How They Think About Climate Change

One of the many paradoxes of time is that it doesn’t flow by smoothly. Although we agree that time is objective—we don’t set our clocks arbitrarily after all—it feels as if it ebbs and flows with our mood. Why is it that an hour delay at the airport is so painful while an hour socializing with friends whooshes past so quickly? Alas, time is one of those enduring subjects that have preoccupied the minds of scholars for millennia. “What, then, is time?” Augustine asked in 4th century A.D. “I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled.”

For psychologists in the 21st century, the question is not “what is time?” but “how does our perception of time influence judgment and decision making?” Let me tell you about a few pieces of research conducted in this budding corner of psychological science. For starters, it turns out that how you think about the past significantly affects how you feel in the present. Consider this. In one study a group of participants wrote counter-factual essays on the origin of the United States. They imagined, for example, that Washington never crossed the Delaware or that the British triumphed at Yorktown. Another group of participants simply wrote down a brief history of the country’s origins—nothing romantic, just the facts. A subsequent test that measured political attitudes discovered that the participants in the first group were more patriotic. This “George Bailey” effect suggests that when we reconsider the past—when we reflect on the fact that things may have turned out differently—we appreciate the present more. 

Another study asked the opposite question. What happens to the mind in the present when we ponder the future? Saving for the future is an endemic problem. One reason is future-me seems vastly different from present-me. When we invest money in a retirement fund, for instance, it somehow feels as if we are losing money instead of gaining it. With this in mind, researchers wondered if salient reminders of future-you boosted savings in the present. Using “age-progressed renderings”, one study showed college-age participants images of what they may look like in the future and found that they saved, on average, twice as much for retirement.

This brings me to a brand new study recently accepted in the journal Psychological Science. The study’s lead-author (who conducted the two previous studies) is Hal Hershfield, an Assistant Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business (his co-authors are Hye Min Bang and Elke Weber). I spoke with Hershfield a few months ago, and he explained that he was initially motivated by an observation the astrophysicist Richard Gott made in the early 1990s. Gott argued that on average, the longer a non-perishable entity lasts, the longer we should expect it to last. For example, on May 17, 1993, Gott listed the then current Broadway shows and estimated with 95 percent accuracy that the longest-running shows would last the longest, and vice versa. As a child he visited the Great Pyramids and the Berlin wall and correctly guessed that the former would out last the latter.

Although we don’t walk around with Gott’s principle in our frontal lobes, we have the intuition that a longer past means a longer future. That is, it seems more plausible that the United States (1776) will last longer than the fragile South Sudan (2011), while the nimble San Marino (301 A.D) will outlive both, just as Catholicism will outlive Mormonism and every other new-age religion. Hershfied’s insight is that “these perceptions should matter for pro-environmental behavior, which fundamentally relies on making tradeoffs between current economic costs and current and especially future environmental benefits.”

To test the relationship between the perception of a country’s age and intuitions about the environment, Hershfield and his colleagues conducted two studies. In the first they examined the relationship between the age of a country and its environmental performance. To measure the latter they used an environmental performance index developed by Yale that considers human health and the health of the ecosystem. A country’s age refers to the year it became independent (this means that China began in 1949, and not 2000 BCE). Controlling for GDP and WGI (Worldwide Governance Indicators), the team discovered a “strong positive relationship between country’s age and environmental performance.” The idea here is that countries with the longest pasts have the longest perceived futures, so it’s easier to imagine why negative environmental effects matter.

The second experiment examined the between-country differences using a clever temporal framing technique. Participants observed one of two timelines that spatially highlighted the age of the United States. In the first (the Young U.S. condition), the start point was the beginning of the Roman Empire (27 BC), which means a tiny sliver on the right side of the timeline represented the United States. In the second (the Old U.S. condition), the start point was 1492, making the United States occupy a significant portion of this timeline. The team designed the second frame to elicit a “sense of kinship or emotional connection to future generations,” just like the aforementioned study involving “age-progressed renderings” elicited a more intimate connection between the present-self and the future-self.

Next, the 308 participants took a survey that paired four “immediate concerns” (e.g., unemployment) with four environmental issues labeled “longer-term concerns” (e.g., air pollution). The task of the participants was to select which issues should get priority and indicate, using a 0-100 scale, how prioritized each issue should be. The dependent variable was NGO donation—their willingness to invest in environmental sustainability—but Hershfield and his colleagues also measured how participants perceived the age of the United States and how close they felt with future generations.

The first finding confirmed one of the hypotheses: participants in the Old U.S. condition were more likely to think the US was a “well-established” country. However, participants in the Young U.S. condition chose just as many long-term issues in the survey as participants in the Old U.S condition. Second, the team confirmed their initial hunch that participants in the Old U.S. condition who felt closer to future generations donated “significantly more of their earnings to an environmental fund compared to the other group.” Hershfield clarifies that the manipulation did not boost connectedness to future generations for all participants; it simply boosted the effect for people who already felt connected in the first place.

Here’s how the researchers sum it up:

Using both country-level data and an experiment, we found evidence that a country’s past duration may act as a mirror for estimates of its possible future duration. The longer the future appears to be, the more likely people are to act in pro-environmental ways, when they feel connected to future generations. Policy makers interested in harnessing these effects to promote environmental concern and action can take encouragement from the results of our experiment showing that such concern and action is elicited by the perception that one’s country has a long past (and by implication a long future), and not by its actual age. Thus, prompts that very simply compare a given country to a shorter-lived entity or that promote its historic past rather than existence in its current political identity may effectively change long-term environmental behavior.

One last thought. Time elicits our deep aversion to loss. When we speculate about the past, we realize that the odds of our existence are miniscule. And when we contemplate our well-being in the future, the fragilities of life—money, disease, accidents—become salient. Time brings the ultimate asymmetry: when you think about being alive in the present, you suddenly remember that you have a lot more to lose than to gain. Death, in other words, is worse than anything gained in life, except, of course, life itself.

Image via Shuttershock/My Life Graphic


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