New Study Explains why the Future is More Important than the Past

With all due respect to History teachers, people generally give events that have yet to come more value than those that have already happened. This way of thinking is far from illogical; the future is never certain and can always change while the past remains the same. But some new experiments shows that people tend to place more value on events in the future, even when it’s completely irrational.

In their series of experiments, psychologists Eugene Caruso of Graduate School of Business of the University of Chicago, Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University, and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia conducted a series of experiments showing increased emotion when events in the future were considered.

All of the experiments involved participants imagining themselves performing an action, either in the past or in the future. One scenario had participants imagine they were hired to input information into a computer for five hours, before being asked how much they should be paid for the job and how difficult the job was or was going to be. Other scenarios had participants decide how much a woman should win in her lawsuit against the drunk driver who hit her or how expensive a bottle of wine they should get for a friend, who had let them or was going to let them stay at his vacation house for a week. The first scenario was changed in another experiment to involve a random person doing the computer job and the participant had to decide how much this person would earn. A final experiment involved a real situation, where participants had either just finished their winter break or were about to start it. In this experiment participants had to answer what they did or were going to do and how much they would pay to extend their winter break.

The results of these and their other experiments appear in the August issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. In all of the experiments, participants would place more value on the event in the future, even if the exact same event happened in the past. In the first scenario, participants always gave themselves more money if it was done in the future than when it was done in the past, even though answers about the difficulty of the task did not differ between the two groups. In the scenario about the woman hit by a car, the woman always won more money if her accident had recently happened and she still had to go through rehabilitation. In cases where she had made a full recovery she won less. It was similar in the case of the friend with the vacation house; if the participant had yet to spend his or her vacation, then the friend got a more expensive bottle of wine. When the participant had already had his or her vacation, the friend got a less expensive bottle of wine. Participants who had their winter break before they were questioned also said they would spend less than those who did not have their break yet.

The researchers’ findings are important for understanding valuations of the past and future, apart from their many practical implications as well.

“Our studies show that people value events in the future more than they value equivalent events in the equidistant past, that they do so even when they consider this asymmetry irrational, and that one reason why they make these asymmetrical valuations is that contemplating future events produces greater affect than does contemplating past events,” the researchers wrote.

While beneficial only to some, the research also shows the possible advantage one can have by establishing the value of something before an event has happened. Most importantly, the study has shown how valuations of the past and future can affect a person’s decisions about himself and others.

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