Monday, August 23, 2010

Perspectives of Time

I just watched this video about how time perspective affects our behavior:

(via Sociological Images)

I know you can't see the whole thing, that's because I basically suck at the internet and if you click on it, it'll take you to YouTube where you can watch it all. It's 10 whole minutes long (I KNOW), but the animations are great and the narrator, psychologist Phillip Zimbardo, brings up some fascinating ideas.

We have a particular perspective of time in mainstream American culture. We like to be busy - or at least, we ARE always busy. The country is at base a Protestant* culture, which Zimbardo describes as having a good work ethic, but also having what he calls a "future orientation". Basically, this culture looks ahead to the future and works today to gain tomorrow. Because we want to gain money and success, that is what we work for.

But not all cultures have this future orientation. Some are present or past oriented. The past orientations spend a lot of time thinking about the past, either reminiscing over good times or regretting past failures. Present orientations are either hedonists who just do whatever they feel like or they are convinced that their life is fated - fated by religion, by their poor social circumstance, or whatever. Present and past orientations do not lend themselves to behavior that will lead to accumulation of wealth and success in the future.

Ok. But then Zimbardo begins to link this attitude to specific cultures and I began to squirm a little bit. I have heard students echoing this idea of a Culture of Poverty - that is, that the poor are poor because they are lazy and don't plan ahead. I actually think a women dropped one of my classes after I scolded her a little bit for espousing this idea. You've probably heard it - "Black people / Hispanics / whatever just don't like to work hard."

Let me be CRYSTAL clear about this: Zimbardo isn't making these connections, I am.

Zimbardo explains how they can actually link this time-based perspective to national income. So if past or present orientation is a part of culture, what does that say about the culture? Is it fair to apply this idea of a cultural mindset, or is that just stereotyping?

I don't know.

Ironically, my husband comes from a Catholic family, Catholics being supposedly one of these past and present oriented cultures, and he is the most work-now-play-later person I have ever met. Annoyingly so, actually.

I get twitchy when I hear about reasons for poverty and the cultural mindset. Not because it's impossible for those reasons to exist, but because of how those ideas have been and continue to be twisted in order to justify cuts in social programs meant to benefit the poor. Or decisions to hire one employee over another. Or the decision a teacher makes to devote more time to one student over another. Etc.

But on the other hand - what metric are we using to judge this success? It's a very white metric, I think. By that I mean we measure success based on the standards of that same Protestant American culture that was doing so well by planning for the future. Success to us is money in the bank, promotions at work, a house in the suburbs, nice vacations in the summer, leisure time, and so on. The exact definitions of it might change (you might want a loft in New York City rather than that house), but the end picture ends up about the same.

What if my success isn't that same Protestant picture of money in the bank? What if my success is paying tribute to my culture, making my children happy, doing more volunteer work, or anything else that isn't related to money? It's all related to money, of course, because when you have money everything else gets a little easier, but for some people the end isn't just the money itself.

I often think about people who are disgustingly rich and who are actively working to get richer, and I think, why? Once you have enough, what's the point? I look at businesses who have a steady, happy customer base but who are driven to continue expanding and think, why? Why not focus on making the best product possible rather than opening new stores?

So when we judge people based on this success, whose definition are we using? How is it fair to measure someone else by a standard they don't care to meet? What if those Protestants who save, save, save for the future keel over and die of a heart attack today?

Sorry about the random incoherences, just a string of thoughts from the video. Anyone get anything more structured from it?

*I use the word Protestant a lot in this entry. I'm certainly not bashing the religion, I'm using it in the way the video did as a descriptor of American culture.

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