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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Planners Save, Hedonists Squander

How we treat time is key to happiness, say psychologists

Eat Now, Think Later: People stuck in the present tend to have poor impulse control, as demonstrated in the famous Stanford Marshmallow Study. Photo by

Give a four-year-old a marshmallow, and she’ll eat it, no hesitation. Unless she’s promised a second if she waits 15 minutes before eating the first. Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel tested the ability of kids to delay gratification in this way in the 1960’s. Behind the one-way mirror, Mischel noticed that some kids—I’ll call them the planners—might squirm and sniff and squeeze the prize but ultimately managed to resist temptation. Others could not. They gobbled right away.

Follow-up studies of the same kids as teenagers revealed a remarkable divide. Those who could wait longer were far better off. The planners were more confident, attentive, respectful, trustworthy, and calm under pressure. They were more eager to learn and, in fact, earned SAT scores that were more than 200 points higher than those of the hedonistic gobblers.

The psychologist Philip Zimbardo, a colleague of Mischel’s, uses the elegant experiment as a hook for his new book, The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life. Part research report, part self-help guide, Zimbardo and co-author John Boyd (a research manager at Google) explain what this all means for you. Your perspective on time, they say, can make or break your well-being.

I saw Zimbardo speak with zeal on the topic at the New York Academy of Sciences last week. If you’re a future-oriented person—able to wait for your marshmallows—you likely set goals and meet them, save money, and finish your work on time. For the gobblers among us, the present-oriented, well, I’m afraid the gobblers are a bit screwed. Pain, sickness, financial ruin, addiction, death, and hell. That’s verbatim from one of Zimbardo’s Power Point slides. Sorry—probable pain, sickness, financial ruin, addiction, death, and hell.

Hyperbole aside, Zimbardo has spent decades refining a way to quantify what he feels is an overlooked predictor of a person’s aptitude for long-term success. His tool to measure time perspective is called the ZTPI: the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory. The ZTPI will identify what level and shade of past-, present-, and future-oriented you are. You can then compare it to a so-called optimal profile, giving you a new excuse for why you haven’t accomplished what you wanted to this year.

So is it carpe diem or carpe annum for you? You can measure your personal ZTPI here. But never fear: Zimbardo says time perspective can be readjusted. To learn how, though, it seems you’ll have to buy the book.