Our changing attitudes to time

Youngsters tend to live for the moment whilst older folks are more concerned about their futures. But when in a person’s life does this change in perspective usually occur? A new study identifies a period between the ages of thirteen and sixteen as being critical. Laurence Steinberg and colleagues asked 935 people between the ages of ten and thirty years to answer questions regarding how much they think about the future, and to complete a time-discounting task. Briefly, this required them to make a number of hypothetical choices between less money now or more money at a later date. Choosing more money available later is a sign of being more oriented to the future.

A key difference emerged between participants who were aged thirteen and younger versus those aged sixteen and older, with the older group being more future oriented. There were no age-related differences among participants aged thirteen or less, or among participants aged sixteen or more, whilst fourteen and fifteen-year-olds were mixed, with a time orientation that did not differ from the younger or older groups.

Another important finding was that a tendency to favour immediate rewards was associated with the participants’ self-reported tendency to not think about the consequences of their actions, but was less related to their self-reported impulsivity and disinclination to plan ahead. It’s a subtle distinction, but Steinberg’s team said this implies future orientation is influenced by at least two developmental trajectories: one relating to a proclivity to plan ahead, which continues to emerge well into early adulthood, and another related to a diminishing salience of immediate rewards, which as we’ve seen, undergoes a crucial change in mid-adolescence.

ResearchBlogging.orgSteinberg, L., Graham, S., O’Brien, L., Woolard, J., Cauffman, E., & Banich, M. (2009). Age Differences in Future Orientation and Delay Discounting. Child Development, 80 (1), 28-44 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01244.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

4 thoughts on “Our changing attitudes to time”

  1. It strikes me that young people are now reporting / perceiving time going by more quickly than people of my generation did when we were younger. (I am in my early 50s.) Is this the experience of other people?

    I have been wondering about this and my unresearched conclusion is that the amount of information available via internet is having an effect. I liken it to being in a train – where objects close the train appear to be past faster than objects more distant. Perhaps all the objects are close to the train now for young people?

    Has there been any research into this?


  2. There has been research into this. I recommend a book by Thomas H. Eriksen, “Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age”. The author came to the similar conclusions as you did.


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