Book Notes: The Time Paradox by Zimbardo

The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd

The subtitle oversells what’s going on here — my life is not changed, and I’m not sure where the “new” psychology is — but there are still some interesting nuggets and well-told stories that bring the ideas to life.

My main takeaways:

    • Time is your scarcest resource and more valuable than money. While we run cost-benefit analyses before making an investment of money, we are not as deliberate before making an investment of time.


  • How you perceive time — the time that’s in the past, how much time you think you have ahead of you, the value of your current moment, how you explain the passage of time — has a huge influence on your decision making.


    • Therefore, if you want to better understand a person, try to understand how they think about time, and especially how they think about the time they have left till death. Or if they think about death at all.



  • The authors assert that people usually fall into one of a handful of “time perspective types.” Here’s an overview of each time perspective. They are: present-oriented, present-hedonistic, present-fatalistic, future-oriented, past-oriented. While I didn’t fill out the various surveys in the book, I think I trend toward being future-oriented, which would mean I am especially good at delaying immediate gratification for long term reward, employing probabilistic thinking, being health conscious, goal oriented, and a few other things. Future-oriented people struggle with being able to “enjoy present, transient, consumable activities and experiences.”


Below are my favorite nuggets. All are direct quotes, per usual.

How Sense of Time and Its Passage Affects Decisionmaking

After adolescence chronological age becomes a less reliable predictor of motivation, thought process, and emotional response. Recently, leading psychologists have begun to explore whether your chronological age—time passed since birth—is as relevant as your sense of the time remaining until your death.

When you imagine that you have a lot of time left, you use it to learn more about the world, meet new people, and experience novelty. When a life’s time is short, its goals become short-term. The mantra of those who anticipate a long-term future is “More is better,” and they generally look to spend time with a lot of different people and new acquaintances. The mantra of those who anticipate a short future is “Quality, not quantity,” and they choose to spend quality time with fewer people.

One possible life strategy is to seek knowledge about yourself and your world and to look for help doing so from a range of experts and a variety of acquaintances. A second strategy is to seek emotional gratification and derive emotional meaning from life by deepening intimate relationships. In a study of U.S. Caucasians and African-Americans ages eighteen to eighty-eight, older people placed more importance on the emotional qualities offered by social partners than on the informational value that might be derived from future relationships. However, young gay men who were HIV-positive and had disease symptoms responded as the elderly did in desiring deeper, more meaningful emotional relationships. Their comparison group was gays of the same average age who were HIV-negative. The HIV-negative gay men chose knowledge contacts over emotional ones.

Let’s make you a participant in one of these studies. With whom would you prefer to spend thirty minutes: A) a member of your immediate family, B) a recent acquaintance, or C) the author of a book you just read? If you are older, you will probably choose A. If you are younger, you are likely to choose B or C. Now imagine that a new medical procedure can confer an unexpected twenty more years of longevity. Would your answer change? Research showed that imagining an extra twenty years of life expectancy made the elderly respond like youngsters. They no longer preferred the company of familiar social partners over someone from whom they might learn something new.

From these studies, we can see that constraints on time change the value we place on emotional goals.

A healthy time perspective in a relationship looks a lot like a healthy time perspective in an individual. It’s a balance of past positive, present hedonistic, and future.

How Time Passes:

The more cognitive processing you do within a given period, the more time you judge to have passed.

Levine’s research teams visit cities and measure walking speeds, clock accuracy, and the tempo of basic business transactions, such as buying stamps at the post office. Using these metrics, Levine has calculated the pace of life in dozens of cities around the world. Western European countries lead the world in rapid pace of life, with Switzerland at the top of the list. Japan is also high on the index. Second-world countries are found predominantly at the bottom of the list. Of the thirty-one countries measured, Mexico has the slowest pace of life.

Death is the end of a lifetime. Denial of death is a denial that time will end. If you deny that time ends, you are likely to treat time much differently than you would if you felt time to be scarce and of limited duration.
From this life-bound perspective, birthdays and deaths mark the beginning, passing, and end of our personal time.

We save, protect, and conserve our mental thought cycles, much as a miser guards his money. Psychologists have actually coined a term for this tendency, calling humans “cognitive misers.” In daily life, when faced with routine decisions, people conserve their thought cycles and rely instead on mental heuristics—simple, practical rules of thumb that we learn through trial and error.

On Memory:

Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler felt that a person’s first memory was a window into the rest of his or her life. During his initial session, Adler often asked his therapeutic clients about their first memories and then used the memories as a way to understand their present.

Research has demonstrated that it is possible to implant false memories simply by asking leading questions about the past.

Our memories are fallible. We can forget things that actually happened, and we can remember things that did not.

Present vs. Future Orientation:

Psychologists Bob Emmons and Mike McCullough discovered that attitudes toward the past are key to the development of gratitude, which allows you to appreciate your life in the present. Their work and our work on the past-positive time perspective suggests that positive attitudes toward the past are associated with greater happiness and health.

A central core of their [present-oriented people] psychological makeup is sensuality. They are always open to sensory input, taking time to smell the proverbial roses and to touch. Sensuality merges with sexuality, and they enjoy sexual activities of all sorts. Present-oriented high school students reported enjoying R-and X-rated movies and pornography more than their future-oriented classmates did.

Another reason, we suspect, for infrequent sexual encounters among future-oriented men is their tendency toward perfectionism. Sex becomes performance and thus induces evaluation apprehension and the expectation of receiving gold stars for getting erections, sustaining them, and achieving orgasms.

Random Facts:

Car accidents increase by about 10 percent the day after clocks are set forward in the spring, and decrease by a smaller amount the day after clocks are set back one hour to standard time in the fall.

Football fever runs so hot in the Oregon-size country of Ghana that national industries are required to shut down during important football matches so there will be enough energy to power the country’s televisions. Throughout Ghana, whenever the national team plays, the event is cause for a nationwide party.

Uncontrolled cockpit sleep does happen, which is what the FAA and the public really should fear. In one terrifying case, a flight from the East Coast to Los Angeles continued hundreds of miles past Los Angeles and out to sea before one of the two sleeping pilots awakened.

The Most Common English Nouns: 1. Time 2. Person 3. Year 4. Way 5. Day

A search on for “time” results in more than 7 billion hits. In contrast, there are fewer than 3 billion hits for “money” and less than a billion hits for “sex.”

We need the human touch to survive: handshakes, pats on the back, strokes across the forehead, even kisses on the cheek. [In terms of the chemicals that are released with touch.]


This emotional catharsis supposedly allows survivors and servicepeople to get painful experiences off their chests, and a great many anecdotal reports describe beneficial outcomes both by participants and by those who administer the treatments. But after over twenty years of research, the benefits of emotion-based debriefing appear to be totally unsupported. Controlled trials demonstrate that debriefing failed to relieve psychological disorders, including post-traumatic stress, and in some cases, found that this method embedded painful emotions more deeply in memory, ready to be recalled and relived.

I think that the events of childhood are overrated; in fact, I think past history in general is overrated. It has turned out to be difficult to find even small effects of childhood events on adult personality, and there is no evidence at all of large—to say nothing of determining—effects.

all of psychotherapy can be seen as an attempt to work through the present to gain control over the past and thereby the future. Different psychological schools stress the importance of different temporal dimensions, although all of them work from the present. For example, psychoanalysis stresses the importance of the past; existential psychotherapy stresses the importance of the present; and humanistic psychotherapy stresses the importance of the future.

3 comments on “Book Notes: The Time Paradox by Zimbardo
  • Although all of this is interesting, it’s almost certainly overgeneralizing. Especially in behavioral psych studies, claiming that a study “shows X” is often a matter of 55% X, 45% Y with p < .05. Pop psych books tend to ignore these "subtleties." "From these studies, we can see that constraints on time change the value we place on emotional goals." This is not necessarily the right conclusion. It might also be that those with less perceived time remaining are more conservative with their time. If you enjoy family, you know what you are going to get and don't have to make an investment; with a new acquaintance or a book author, you don't know whether the cost of getting to know the person, or spending the time, will be worth it. So it may be simple risk averseness in the use of time.

  • To me, one of the (big) takeaways from the book is that we have time orientation, but we don’t often recognize it in ourselves or others. As I wrote in my post on the subject:

    Zimbardo also wrote The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, which together with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, pokes holes in traditional economic thinking concerning man as as a rational actor. All three argue that things are not as simple. In Zimbardo and Boyd’s case, the problem is that we don’t consciously realize how we tend to think about past, present, and future, or if we do, we aren’t able to step outside ourselves to realize how we’re thinking. What is “rational?” in the context of past, present, and future? To enjoy the moment, or to work toward a future moment? Zimbardo and Boyd implicitly argue neither, and they point to the poorly understood trade-offs we make regarding how we orient ourselves chronologically. That I use the language of economics to present this parallels Zimbardo and Boyd, who discuss “The Economics of Time” along with the nature of opportunity costs—another well-known issue too little referenced in everyday discourse.

  • You do realize that Zimbardo is a professional and highly respected psychologist, right? This book has a popular application, but the research behind it is academically and scientifically rigorous.

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