Experimental feature

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Experimental feature

Does tomorrow feel closer to you than yesterday? New research suggests that events in the future appear nearer to people than events a corresponding time ago.

A recent study led by Eugene Caruso, a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, concludes that we tend to feel closer to the future because we feel like we’re physically moving towards it.

“Future events are associated with diminishing distance mak[ing] them psychologically closer than past events, which are associated with increasing distance,” they write in Psychological Science journal.

Earlier research on spatial perception has established that people feel closer to objects they are approaching than those they have passed, even if they are the same distance apart. “It seemed to us that psychological scientists have neglected the important fact that…people don’t evaluate the past and the future in exactly the same way,” says Prof Caruso, who conducted this research with colleagues at Swarthmore College and the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Students and professionals were initially asked to report their perception of distance to the same specific times in the past and in the future. With results showing that “a specific event in the future is psychologically closer than the same specific event in the past”, they tested their premise that psychological distance “is metaphorically grounded in movement of the self through physical space” by placing students in a virtual reality environment.

When moving forward, participants reported the future as closer than the past. When moving backward, participants contrastingly reported that the future was, to some degree, more psychologically distant than the past. This confirmed the academics’ hypothesis that perceptions of time are grounded in human experiences of space. “We believe that [this] effect in psychological distance reflects a broad bias toward the future whereby people are psychologically oriented toward the future more than the past,” they write.

This orientation has meaningful consequences, they argue, as it “may better prepare individuals to approach, avoid, or otherwise cope with future events”. They cite the example of mobilisation in the face of deadlines that are perceived to be looming.

“Just as people mobilise resources to prepare for approaching sights and sounds, they apparently have a more general tendency to prepare for the future by reducing its psychological distance from the here and now,” they conclude.


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