In its April 5, 2013 edition, The Economisthad  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 Scienceindicating  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!

by Phyllis G. Pollack

Phyllis G. Pollack is a full time neutral in Los Angeles where, as President of PGP Mediation, she focuses on business, real estate, contract and “lemon law” disputes. She may be reached at Phone: 213-630-8810 / / Website: