Keep future events in perspective by remembering that they’ll fade into the past

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“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

-Søren Kierkegaard

How is the future different from the past?

Ask a physicist, and they might tell you that there isn’t a difference, that the distinction is an illusion.

Or, they might dryly explain, “Per the Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy increases as we move through time—that is the only distinction.”

But ask an ordinary person, and they’ll declare that the past and future couldn’t be more different[1,2]:

“The past is the past,” they might say, “a set of memories, unchangeable, that fade over time.”

“But the future is alive and filled with possibility.”

In general, people care more about the future than the past, and get more emotionally charged when imagining events that lie in the future[1].

Unless you believe the future is entirely up to fate and nothing you do will ever change it, this makes sense. Because it is still possible to influence future events, you can get worked up when considering the bad and good things that might happen. This motivates you to take appropriate actions to avoid the bad and bring about the good.

But this generally adaptive tendency can have very strange consequences.

Consider this question asked in a study about compensation[1]: If you spent 5 hours entering data into a computer, what amount of payment would be fair to you?

To give a rational answer, you might begin with what you normally get paid, then adjust up or down based on how much you like data entry, what you’re giving up to be in front of the computer, and who the data is for.

But participants’ answers were influenced by more than just these rational factors. When asked what they should get paid for work done a month ago, participants said $62. But when asked what they should get paid for work a month from now, they said $125!

Why? Imagining future work stirs more negative emotions, such as stress, than imagining past work, and so people want more compensation for it[1].

This same past-future asymmetry plays out in moral judgments[3], and decisions involving other people.

Imagine that a woman has been seriously injured by a drunk driver, requiring 6 months of painful rehabilitation to fully recover. What compensatory damages, between $0 and $10 million, should she be awarded?

Rationally speaking, it shouldn’t matter whether the accident took place 6 months ago or today. But when the accident is fresh, with the woman’s six months of painful rehab yet to come, people want to see more damages awarded—over $1 million more in one study[1].

Reflect for a minute on your own life. Can you think of examples where you’ve placed greater weight or value on future events than past ones?

  • Maybe when someone did you a favor, you were initially very grateful and motivated to do something to show your appreciation… but a week later you didn’t feel the same need.
  • Or, when contemplating an upcoming dental procedure, you felt extreme dread, but looking back at it a month later you weren’t too bothered.
  • Or, perhaps as a vacation neared, you got more and more excited—but then after it happened, it swiftly faded into a pleasant background memory.

Keeping in mind that events quickly lose their potency when they move from the future to the past can give you valuable perspective.

For instance, if you find yourself overanxious about something in the future, you might take a moment to think about occasions where you were worked up about a future event only to realize that, once it had passed, it wasn’t so bad after all.

This can help you face daunting future events with the necessary courage.

?References?

1. Caruso, E.M., Gilbert, D.T., & Wilson, T.D. (2008). A wrinkle in time: asymmetric valuation of past and future events. Psychological Science, 19, 796-801.
2. Caruso, E.M., Van Boven, L., Chin, M., & Ward, A. (2013). The temporal Doppler effect: when the future feels closer than the past. Psychological Science, 24, 530-536.
3. Caruso, E.M. (2010). When the future feels worse than the past: a temporal inconsistency in moral judgment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139, 610–624.