Researchers from the University of Granada have carried out the most comprehensive study to date—comprising 22 cultural groups—on the relationship between the importance that people attach to the past and how they picture it: as lying ahead of them or behind them
The authors found a linear relationship in which the cultures under study could be arranged in order, such that the more traditional the culture (attaching greater importance to the past), the greater people’s tendency to conceive the past as lying ahead of them
Think of a personal episode from the past. If someone were to ask you if you were visualising it as lying ahead of you or behind you, what would you say? Researchers from the University of Granada (UGR) have demonstrated that the answer depends on the relevance you assign to the past in your personal value system. To arrive at this conclusion, they carried out the most comprehensive study to date—comprising 22 cultural groups—on the relationship between the importance that people attach to the past and how they picture it. The results of the study indicate that people for whom the past is of greater importance (for example, because they belong to a highly traditional culture) tend to visualise the past as being ahead of them and the future behind them. Conversely, those who attach more importance to the future (for example, those from a progress-orientated culture) tend to picture the past as being behind them and the future ahead.
The principal researchers of this study are Carmen Callizo-Romero and Julio Santiago of the UGR’s Mind, Brain and Behaviour Research Centre (CIMCYC). Nine other international co-authors are collaborating in the investigation.
Callizo-Romero explains that “we tend to think that the future is located ahead of us and the past behind us because we walk forward. Ahead of us are the places where we will be in the future, and behind us are those where we have already been. However, although this pattern may seem universal, it is not. There is at least one other factor that moderates it, and this is what we have investigated.”
The Temporal Focus Hypothesis and previous studies
The study was based on the Temporal Focus Hypothesis, a concept used in the Psychology field that suggests that when we attach importance to something, we pay attention to it; and that this, in turn, leads us to place it in front of us, in our mind’s eye—that is, it is located ahead of the person. When applied to time, this concept implies that the relative importance given to the past (compared to the future) situates it ahead of us. This concept was formulated for the first time in a study published in 2014 by the same UGR laboratory that has published the current study, the GroundedCognitionLab.
The 2014 study was conducted on a sample of Spanish and Moroccan participants. It showed that the latter tend to picture the past as lying ahead of them and that this is due to their stronger traditional culture. In other words, Moroccans tend to place the past ahead of themselves when they picture it because they attach great importance to values related to the past, such as traditions, customs, and respect for their elders. However, young Spaniards attached more importance to values related to the future, such as progress and development, and tended to place the future ahead, accordingly. Following the publication of this earlier work, numerous studies from other international universities—with participants from cultures around the world, particularly Asian cultures—have provided evidence in support of this hypothesis.
The new study and its main finding
In this new study, the UGR researchers tested the scope and validity of the Temporal Focus Hypothesis. First, they collected data from participants from seven different cultures (American, Spanish, Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian, Moroccan, and Turkish) and combined them with the data from the Moroccan and Spanish participants in the previous study conducted in their laboratory. The authors found a linear relationship in which the cultures under study could be arranged in order, such that the more traditional the culture (attaching greater importance to the past), the greater people’s tendency to picture the past as lying ahead.
“Furthermore, we suspected that this linear relationship could predict the results of the other previously-published studies on the Temporal Focus Hypothesis that used our same methodology. We were able to verify this thanks to the authors of these studies, who provided us with their data which derived from different cultures—in particular, from South African and British participants and various subcultures of China and Vietnam,” says Callizo-Romero. The UGR researchers found that all the cultures studied are, indeed, ordered according to their prediction. “This is important because it indicates that the prediction can be useful for estimating the extent to which people of any culture (or subculture) are likely to picture the past as lying ahead of them, knowing only how much importance they attach to the values of the past compared to those of the future.”
In short, the findings of this latest UGR study entirely support the Temporal Focus Hypothesis: attaching importance to the past can lead us to picture it ahead of us, rather than behind.
Callizo-Romero, C., Tutnjević, S., Pandza, M., Ouellet, M., Kranjec, A., Ilić, S., Gu, Y., Göksun, T., Chahboun, S., Casasanto, D., & Santiago, J. (2020). ‘Temporal focus and time spatialization across cultures’, Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. Online: https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-020-01760-5
Mind, Brain and Behaviour Research Centre (CIMCYC)