In its April 5, 2013 edition, The Economist had an interesting article in its Science and Technology section about how we judge time. Entitled “Yesterday Came Suddenly”, it discusses a study to be published in Psychological Science indicating that we view the future as being closer than the past. Calling it the “Temporal Doppler Effect”, the researchers, Eugene M. Caruso of the University of Chicago, Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Mark Chin and Andrew Ward of Swarthmore College conducted a series of experiments showing that we have different temporal views of time. Their four different studies showed “….a systematic asymmetry whereby future events are psychologically closer than past events of equivalent objective distance.” (Id. at 2.)

Specifically, in one experiment, the researchers asked participants to report the psychological distance to the same specific time, (e.g. one month, 1 year) at objectively equal distances in either the past or the future. In short, they were asked whether one month in the future from today seemed closer or further in time than one month in the past from today. The participants reported that “… a month in the future was closer than a month in the past”. Similarly, the participants reported that one year in the future was closer than one year in the past. (Id. at 7.) That is, subjectively, people view future events as being closer in time than past events even though the two points in time may be objectively equidistant.

The researchers found this to be true with events as well. Three hundred and twenty three participants were asked to determine the relative closeness of Valentine’s time; some were asked 8 days before Valentine’s Day while others were asked 7 days after it occurred. Again, the participants reported “…that Valentine’s Day was psychologically closer one week before it happened than one week after it happened.” (Id. at 7-8).

Finally, the researchers wanted to find out if a person’s physical movement – backward or forward- affected their psychological view of the future versus the past. Using virtual reality headgear, some of the participants were made to feel as though they were physically moving backward while others were made to feel as though they were physically moving forward. They were then asked questions about how far in the past or in the future were certain events.

The researchers found that the physical sensation of moving forward or backward did have some effect on the participants’ perception of time. “When moving forward, participants reported the future closer than the past…. When moving backward, in contrast, participants reported that the future was somewhat more psychologically distant than the past….” (Id. at 9-10.)

Indeed, other studies have found that “…

[p]eople tend to lean their bodies backward when thinking about the past whereas they lean their bodies forward when thinking about the future. ” (Id. at 4).

In sum, the researchers concluded:

“We believe that the temporal Doppler effect in psychological distance reflects a broad “bias toward the future” whereby people are psychologically oriented toward the future more than the past…. This future orientation is highly functional, as future events can typically be acted upon more successfully than past events… Thus, representing future events as psychologically close may better prepare individuals to approach, avoid, or otherwise cope with future events. For example, psychologically close events tend to arouse more concrete action plans than distant events… People who feel close to an upcoming test are more motivated to prepare and perform well….” (Id. at 14.)

As the researchers conclude, since we are more emotionally oriented to the future than to the past, we tend to place higher value on the future than the past and to “… judge moral transgressions more harshly in prospect than in retrospect.” (Id.)

So, if the future is emotionally and psychologically closer to us than the past, how does this effect negotiations and mediation? Impliedly, it appears to be more beneficial to focus on the future and not on the past or on the events leading to the dispute. As people are more tied to the future, invoke their imaginations about what the future will look like if the matter is resolved, if not resolved, what it will take to prepare for trial, what depositions and other work much be done before trial et. cetera. As this study indicates that the past events and history of the dispute are psychologically and emotionally very distant to most people, focusing the parties on the past will not lead to resolution. Focusing them on the future and the work to be done to prepare adequately for future events will more likely lead to resolution! Or, as The Economist, concludes: “Talking of future plans may be more effective than boasting about past successes.”

… Just something to think about!

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