By Emma Young
In 2017, in my first ever post for the Digest, I that challenged the popular idea that “now” — also known as the “subjective present” — is three seconds long. It’s just not possible to define the present so strictly, this review concluded.
Instead of trying to explore what constitutes “right now”, another way to get at our conceptions of time is to ask: when does the present end and the future begin? And precisely this question has now been explored in a series of studies by Hal Hershfield at UCLA and Sam Maglio at the University of Toronto. In , published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the pair report that these perceptions can vary substantially between people — and can affect the kinds of choices that we make, with potentially significant implications for our future lives.
In the first of five studies, the pair asked 199 online participants to write down, “without giving it too much thought, off the top of your head,” when they felt the present to end. They found that the responses fell into a wide range of duration categories (ranging from “right now” to “longer than a year” and “at some future event”). One fifth thought that the present ended “right now”. Another 18% indicated a time between 1 second and 1 minute from the present moment; in total, almost half considered the present to end some time within the next hour. However, some participants had a much longer time-frame in mind, with 15% reporting that it ended at some future event (often indicated as being “at my own death”).
The second study, on a fresh batch of participants, returned a very similar range of reports, but, importantly, it also showed that each participant’s view remained pretty consistent over a four-month period. This suggests that there are stable individual differences between people in when they feel that the future starts, the researchers write.
However, they did also find that external factors can influence these perceptions, and subsequent decisions. When participants were prompted to see the present as short, and the future as coming sooner — by showing them a horizontal bar with markers labelled “present ends” and “future starts” only a short way along it, for instance — they tended to make more far-sighted, future-focused choices, opting to read tips about how to save money for the future, for example.
For a more real-world investigation, Hershfield and Maglio partnered with a “financial wellness program” at UCLA. This programme offers financial literacy bootcamps, which are advertised via flyers emailed to programme members. The researchers were allowed to modify these flyers, so that one version read “The present is short and the future starts sooner: Acquire better financial habits today!”, and the other “The present is long and the future starts later. Acquire better financial habits today!”. Horizontal bars matched the messages, with the future marked as starting sooner on the first version, and later on the second.
To enrol in the financial literacy bootcamp, programme members had to click on a link within the email, allowing the researchers to establish which of the registrants had seen which flyer. “In line with our hypothesis, the short present flyer prompted significantly more people to enrol … compared with the long present condition,” they report.
In the final study, the researchers found that when the present was framed as being short (and so the future as coming sooner), participants were more likely to choose gift cards that allowed them to save for the future, rather than ones that could be used for immediate purchases.
“We contend that people can experience the passage of time as the self jumping through a never-ending succession of temporal bubbles, each of which consists of a new present,” the researchers write. It also seems that though these bubbles are not the same size for all of us, their size is susceptible to external influence.
“We are careful to note that this research represents a first step toward what we hope is a more complete understanding of how people partition the present and the future, how such partitions affect choice, and the mechanisms accounting for these relationships,” Hershfield and Maglio add.