The Secret Powers of Time and Regret

We live in an incredibly fascinating world. I found more evidence of this in the last couple of weeks while reading a couple of different but related articles.

The first insight came from a video by Professor Philip Zimbardo on the “The Secret Powers of Time“. The good professor posits that we, humans, tend to live in one of six ‘time zones’ – 2 of which focus on the past, 2 on the present, and 2 on the future. Of those who live in the past, there are those who are ‘past positive‘ who focus on the ‘good’ memories (birthdays, weddings, past glory, etc.). And there are those who are ‘past negative‘ and wallow in regrets and failures. Those who live in the present can be divided into hedonistic “seeking knowledge, pleasure and living for now” and those who view life as fated “my life is destined to be thus and no amount of planning will help”.

Most of us are ‘future oriented’, mainly because evolutionary forces have favored this approach. That’s the reason we are here and carry this genetic predisposition. According to Prof. Zimbardo, there are two ways of living in the future – One is to be disciplined, learn to work than play, to avoid temptation of the present and postpone gratification. There is another way to be future oriented, which depending on your religious views, starts with the premise that life begins after the death of the mortal body, and one has to earn the rewards for what happens in the after life, in this life.

For example, Protestant nations tend to be very future oriented and consistently outperform others in every economic measure thanks in big part to the Protestant ethic of ‘trusting the future, working hard and earning the right to be called God’s chosen people’. Interestingly, countries that lie along the equator, where weather patterns are uniform and things don’t often change, tend to be more present oriented. Catholic nations such as Spain or Italy tend to be more past oriented. In fact, incredibly so much so that there are cultures (in Southern Italy) which do not have words for ‘plan’ or denoting the future tense.

How about the quality of life in the time zones? Countries which tend to be present oriented tend to have the longest life expectancy. And cities like New York City and London which lie at the furthest end of the future planning spectrum have been observed to have the highest rates of coronary heart disease.

So, the “time culture” of the people makes a profound impact on the personality for a nation and on the personal outcomes for its inhabitants. Fascinating! Another way of internalizing this might be to say – you are likely to be happiest when living in a country/city/neighborhood or working for a company which matches your own personal “time culture”, assuming we have the luxury of being to able to make that choice.  As much as some of us might complain about how slowly things happen in India, there are those of us who believe it to be one of its charms and the secret of its endurance.

The second insight came from an article from Psyblog, which describes the “amazing power of regret to shape our future“. The key observation made by the author is that – regret is not just a backward looking emotion. It is also forward looking. Which is to say that we have the power to anticipate regret and we try to avoid it. This is truly a powerful insight into the workings of our minds.

The article also provides a very cool example of how anticipation of regret works, and sometimes in very irrational ways!

Swapping Lottery Tickets – An example of how we anticipate regret:  In a study, people were asked to first choose lottery tickets. Once they had chosen, they were asked if they’d be willing to exchange their ticket with another person. Those willing to exchange were offered a chocolate truffle as incentive. Surprisingly, less than 50% agreed. Why surprising? Because all lottery tickets have an equal chance of winning, and there is nothing better or worse about any ticket. So, it would make sense to take the chocolate truffle and exchange your ticket every single time.

So, why did more than 50% of the people act irrationally?

This is where anticipation of regret kicks in. We tend to project into the future when making decisions and imagine consequences. Though this is usually the right thing to do, sometimes it works against us. What if we exchanged our ticket and it ends up being the winning one? It is this anticipation of regret that at times stops us from acting rationally and taking the no-brainer chances that come our way. By the way, the only species of organic life observed to be immune to anticipatory regret are auto drivers in Chennai who would rather turn down a handsome offer and wait it out in the auto stand for more. Again, this is one of those things we might have always known instinctively. But, it’s worth a pause to reflect on how anticipatory regret shapes the decisions we make in our lives.

On this note, I leave you with a few questions, the answers to which could improve the quality of the lives we lead.

Which cultural time zone do you belong to? Are you past positive, hedonistic or future oriented? Do you believe in after-life? Does the company you work for or the neighborhood, city, country you live in – reflect your time zone preferences?

I’ve heard a few people claim that they don’t have any regrets. The more useful question to ask is – Do you have any anticipated regrets?

You can watch Prof. Zimbardo’s video on YouTube. And, you can read the Psyblog article here.

pip pip and toodles.

10 Replies to “The Secret Powers of Time and Regret”

  1. Great observation. Doing one's duty without expectation is to transcend all the time zones into a zone of no regrets (neither past centric nor anticipatory). It is neither impractical nor realistic if one believes that there is no other way.

  2. Great observation. Doing one's duty without expectation is to transcend all the time zones into a zone of no regrets (neither past centric nor anticipatory). It is neither impractical nor realistic if one believes that there is no other way.

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