Human beings need to think about the past, present, and future to continue their lives. Different contexts might require a decision that is the result of previous experiences or consideration of plans. Temporal focus is the degree of thinking about the past, present, and future and it is varying across people. While some individuals mostly direct their attention to the past, others may direct it to the present or future.
Why and how are we different in our temporal focus?
Environmental factors shape individuals’ temporal attention as many other psychological processes. Style of parenting is one of the important parts of temporal focus; whereas punitive parenting is associated with focusing on the present for the child (Gelder et al. 2017), being a supporter and encourager can be associated with future focus (Webley & Nyhus, 2006). According to Shipp and Aeon (2019), the temporal focus is not just about the difference between individuals, people is affected and transformed into a new version of themselves by their lives and different life cycle. Therefore, aging or significant events affect the temporal focus of individuals.
Shipp and Aeon (2019) describe the temporal focus components:
Past focus is usually maladaptive because of no control over the past. This focus might have some consequences like depression (in severe past focus).
Present focus is generally correlated with life satisfaction and impulsive behaviors.
Future focus is correlated with the life and work achievements.
Future thinking, which is the main focus of this article is mostly an abstract type of temporal focus because of the limited details of the future events in our minds. Therefore, it needs more cognitive activity in nature.
You might know some people who care about the future more and even the future of the world. They are probably more responsible and more ready for an unpredictable future with their comprehensive plans. Even if some individuals direct their attention more on the future, in case of the absence of neurological conditions related to this ability; we all think about the future in our daily lives more or less, positive or negative. Have you ever thought about how often and even without voluntariness you project yourself in the future?
Cole and Kvavilashvilli (2021) defined a dual process account for two types of future thinking (spontaneous and deliberate future thinking). As we mentioned above, future focus requires considerable cognitive resources because of its nature. However, when voluntary and spontaneous future thinking are compared, it is not surprising to see some differences. According to these researchers, voluntary future thinking involves more controlled deliberate, and slow cognitive processing. On the other hand, spontaneous future thoughts are more pre-made and consist of previously structured future thoughts. In this respect, spontaneous future thinking might be considered an automatic retrieval of voluntary future thinking.
The controlled recollection of previous life events and forming a future event involves several concepts and processes. According to Conway et al. (2019), the conceptual self includes past selves, present selves, and future selves. Besides, autobiographical knowledge bases a life story schema on past lifetime periods, past general events, anticipated lifetime periods, and anticipated general events.
Functions of spontaneous and voluntary future thinking:
Duffy and Cole (2021) conducted a study to examine the functions of two modes of future thoughts and an attribute of goal-relatedness. In this study, participants produced spontaneous and voluntary future thoughts, and they rated the functions of these thoughts as self, directive, social and emotional regulation. The results showed that these two modes have functions in similar proportions except for the directive function. Directive function and so goal-relatedness was associated with more spontaneous future thinking than voluntary future thinking. The researchers emphasized the important role of future thinking in general in several functions.
To sum up, even if we presented mostly future thinking and its functions, we strongly believe that it is most beneficial to keep the balance and direct the attention to the past, present, or future according to the current period and the situation. You may argue that you can’t control your spontaneous thoughts, but remember, you may form a basis for these thoughts by the controlled ones!
Cole, S., & Kvavilashvili, L. (2021). Spontaneous and deliberate future thinking: a dual process account. Psychological research, 85(2), 464–479.
Duffy, J., & Cole, S. N. (2021). Functions of spontaneous and voluntary future thinking: evidence from subjective ratings. Psychological Research, 85(4), 1583–1601.
Shipp, A. J., & Aeon, B. (2019). Temporal focus: Thinking about the past, present, and future. Current Opinion in Psychology, 26, 37–43. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.04.0
Van Gelder, J. L., Averdijk, M., Ribeaud, D., & Eisner, M. (2018). Punitive parenting and delinquency: The mediating role of short-term mindsets. The British Journal of Criminology, 58(3), 644–666.
Webley, P., & Nyhus, E. K. (2006). Parents’ influence on children’s future orientation and saving. Journal of Economic Psychology, 27(1), 140–164. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2005.06.016