Why We Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

A scene from "Back to the Future" Photograph by Everett Collection

“So we beat on,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Wrong! At least, according to new behavioral science research. Eugene Caruso, of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, led a team of researchers who found that events in the future feel closer (PDF) to people than those in the past. If there’s a current, in other words, it’s pushing us ceaselessly toward tomorrow.

Surveying college students and commuters at a train station, the researchers found that people perceive a date that is exactly one month or one year in the future as being closer to the present than a date one month or one year in the past. In a second survey, they found that a week before Valentine’s Day, people felt that the holiday was closer to the present than they did a week after it.

Why? Research on spatial perception has found that people perceive objects they are physically moving toward as closer than they actually are. Caruso et al set out to test whether something similar is going on with our perception of time. They put subjects in a virtual reality setting in which they were walking along a road. Some of them were walking toward a fountain in the distance; others saw the fountain receding, as if they were walking backward, away from it. The subjects were then asked about dates in the past and future. Only the people who had been walking toward the fountain felt that dates in the future were nearer than equidistant dates in the past. The walking-backwards condition negated the subjects’ sense of moving toward the future, suggesting that their conception of time and motion were linked.

There’s a certain practicality to this tendency: We can do something about the future, but not about the past, so it makes sense for it to feel more pressing. The finding also suggests something about the way we comprehend time. It buttresses a concept called embodied cognition. Researchers have found that many of the metaphors we use—that power equals height (“high and mighty”), importance equals mass (a “weighty issue”), that sociability equals temperature (a “warm person”) or even that time is movement (it passes, it speeds up, it crawls)—aren’t just figures of speech, but the actual way we understand those concepts.We make sense of abstract ideas by matching them to physical sensations, things our body knows. In some intriguing studies, psychologists have been able to alter a person’s perception of the importance of an issue by having them hold a heavy object, and they have changed their subjects’ assessment of someone’s personality by having them hold a cup of either hot or iced coffee.

Some of this work is controversial, but Caruso’s study suggests that, at least with perceptions of time, we do think about it in an embodied way, as a path we walk along. Does this mean that walking backward might make an impending deadline seem farther off? Hard to say. But it does mean that, if human beings skittered side to side like crabs, rather than walking the way our eyes point, we might have a totally different conception of time.