The time perspective problem in conflict analysis and resolution

Tatar scholar Zufar Fartkutdinov once said “the patience of a nation is measured in centuries.” Many nations and their independence movements lie dormant for hundreds of years until they are roused by great upheavals. Others make attempts at independence but need to be patient and change political culture over centuries to get their way. But what Fartkutdinov called patience, some might call living in the past.

Time perspectives are an interesting psychological phenomenon. We see the passage of time in all kinds of different ways. Some people focus on the past. Of those who do, some think about the good things, or at least what we can learn from the bad, and others brood over past misfortunes and injustices. Some people are only interested in the pleasures of the present. Others are more focused on the future, and lose sight of the lessons of the past. Psychologists Philip Zimbardo (who wrote the Lucifer Effect) and John Boyd have studied time perspectives and have reached two conclusions that are highly relevant to conflict resolution: a) time perspectives are learned, not naturally ingrained, and b) a healthy time perspective is one that takes a balanced and optimistic view of the past, present and future.

For someone Zimbardo and Boyd would call “past-positive”, reflecting on the past is about learning from the bad (eg. mistakes) and celebrating the good. Both men scored nearly perfect for past-positive on the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory, a test of how we perceive time that you should consider taking. Their high scores were presumably because of their wide understanding of time perspective psychology. They know it is very important to know what happened in the past, because it provides a sense of continuity and a sense of self. It can be a source of happiness. And it is necessary if we want to predict the future. But too much emphasis on history, especially a “past-negative” perspective on your group, can cause serious problems.

A focus on the past seems to lead to collectivism. Collectivism rises from an extreme focus on history as told by members of the group you belong to. I have detailed the problems that collectivism causes in my series on individualism and collectivism. Collectivist ideas such as nationalism, racism and so on are irrelevant in modern society, where they are no longer necessary for security or meaning. They continue to exist, however, because we consider the past to be much more than something to learn from. For so many collectivists, the past is a source of pride, honour, rules and meaning.

But should it be? Our groups are not pristine. They have committed war, pillage, rape, oppression and other crimes, often on large scales. Collectivists, of course, dismiss these cases as aberrations, not the people we really are. But a fair reading of history would have to include the good with the bad. Clearly, our collective pasts are not the best place to find virtue.

What is so bad about living in the past? For an individual or a group, the dangers are the same. First, people who are stuck in the past are not willing to try new things, make new friends, or embrace change. For an individual, this can mean a life of misery. What if you moved to get a new job and spent your whole time thinking about how much better your old home was? You would be missing out on all the opportunities for fun and learning in your new environment. For groups, fear of the new means all the same things, but with global implications.

Take, for instance, the Tibetan people. Given that the Tibetans were once free of Chinese rule, many of them resent that it has come back. The fact that most Tibetans are not old enough to know what it was like for Tibet to be independent is irrelevant. People locked in past-negative perspectives imagine what the past was like as they reconstruct it from stories and can only imagine a return to it. But if a Tibetan adopts a future perspective (or better still, a balanced and optimistic view of time), he or she can thrive in the new and prosperous China. Many Tibetans have already done so. Why does one have to cling to one’s culture and past to the rejection of all others? If there are advantages in doing so, try adopting a new culutre in addition to your old one.

Second, since most groups, especially fiercely collectivist ones, share a history of trauma, such as war, genocide, oppression, slavery, and so on, they are likely to want revenge. As Zufar Fartkutdinov probably realised, revenge can stew for centuries. Think about the hatreds in the world that are based on past injustices that hating people feel have gone unresolved. Palestinians hate the Israelis. Millions of Asians hate the Japanese. People from the former Yugoslavia hate each other. Tamils and Sinhalese hate each other. Muslims hate the Jews and the Americans. Anyone who might have oppressed my people, even though I may have lived free and peacefully my whole life, is evil. These feelings are often called ancient hatreds, but a more accurate word is racism. Not everyone in these groups feels hatred, but it is difficult not to when your parents and teachers and friends and leaders and media and history books all tell you to.

So where does this leave us? Zimbardo and Boyd’s first point was that time perspectives are learned. If they are learned, they can be unlearned. For people to want reconciliation instead of revenge, they need to learn other perspectives on the past, and on time itself. A future orientation would also be helpful. A future orientation makes you more likely to learn, save, work hard and try to reconcile the past for the sake of the future. Some of the conditions for a future orientation are

-living in a temperate zone, because different seasons make us plan ahead;

-a stable family, society and nation, because we can predict the future and how our actions will be rewarded;

-education, because we spend many hours learning with no immediate benefit but great future benefit;

-having a job and being successful, because these things show us our effort can pay off.

The future is worth keeping in mind in order to make the right decisions today. Poor neighbourhoods, especially those with poor schools, drugs and gangs, have trouble leaving a “present-fatalistic” mindset because it seems as though, whatever you do, you are bound to be stuck in the ‘hood. But someone with the future in mind thinks it is better to be safe than sorry: no guns, no drugs, no jail, just hard work for future payoff.

The past is too often a weapon in the propaganda war. It should be taught as a way of orienting oneself in a morally neutral history, and learned through multiple perspectives. The past has too much pain and blood to be where we should get all our rules and morals from, but if we learn an inclusive and fair history, we can learn important lessons about how to improve the world. If we focus on the future, we are more likely to be patient and work hard for the benefit of others. Learn more about time perspectives and their effects in the Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd.


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