How Knowledge of Time Psychology Can Help Save the Earth

People's orientation to the present and future and pro-environmental behavior

Posted Dec 16, 2018

Katowice, Poland – On December 15, 2018, after many days of seemingly endless negotiations at the UN climate change talks a deal was struck to register the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The goal is to foster carbon-emission cutting efforts in order to control the rise in global temperatures which negatively affects the world’s climate and our survival on this planet.

But why am I writing about a political-economic summit in a blog on psychology and, more specific, in a blog on time psychology? Because, on an individual level, it is all about decisions between momentary needs and the perception of future outcomes. These are the day-to-day political struggles politicians face: The debts of the state that are piling up today result from efforts to meet citizens’ desires and needs for security and comfort; money is borrowed for the expenditure they require. But the debts must be paid in the future. The coming generation will have to bear the consequences of shortsighted behavior. It is much the same when natural resources and the environment stand at issue. The arguments are always the same: material security now (assuring the country’s economic performance and keeping jobs) must be weighed against preserving an ecological balance that is proving more and more tenuous.

On an individual level, the conflict arises as the weighing of short-term self-interest against the long-term common interest. For example, the private interest of watering the garden or having an extended cool shower during an extreme drought conflicts with the public interest of water conservation (in the long run). For one, the conflict is social: my interest against the common good. But then, it is also a temporal conflict: my interest now against my interest in the future. Perception of time is thus essential in understanding how people (including politicians) decide between these options. Decisions depend on the perception of time, i.e. when the outcome of a choice can be expected. Regarding potential benefits, ‘now’ or ‘soon’ are generally more attractive than ‘later’.

This is how the psychology of time and the personality psychology come into the picture. Together with Anna Sircova from the Time Perspective Network Denmark, I have just written an article in the journal Heliyon concerning the influence of individual time psychology on pro-environmental behavior and sustainability. We want to show how people can be individually characterized by their time orientations. For example, impulsive behavior is defined as generally reacting to the immediate situation without thinking about future consequences. In this way, impulsivity is defined as extreme temporal short-sightedness or as dominance of present orientation. In contrast, people who are more future-oriented are able to analyze morally relevant behavior at a higher level of abstraction and, therefore, foresee potential future consequences in greater detail. Studies have accordingly shown that more future-oriented people, in contrast to present-impulsively oriented individuals, show more pro-environmental behavior such as more often avoiding driving the car or investing in energy saving technology.

A strong present orientation – if it is not impulsively stimulus oriented (“I want my treat now”) but mindful – is in the context of eco-psychology another positive predictor for sustainable “green” behavior. A mindfully-oriented present awareness is related to a stronger connection of the self with nature. In essence, if you feel you are part of nature, you don’t litter it. Sustainable behavior naturally evolves from an attitude of caring for nature as a form of self-care. I am an organism within the ecosystem of this planet. Whenever I pollute air, water, and soil, I pollute the air I breathe, the water I drink, and the food I eat. So, next to a future orientation as personality trait, a mindful present orientation is another positive trait in people which one should promote for the development of measures against climate change.

Just to make one important fact clear. The dominance of a single time orientation cannot be considered optimal for human functioning and well-being. An overly strong focus on the future can potentially impair quality of life. Having an emotionally rewarding existence depends on the hedonistic capacity to live for the moment, such as spontaneously agreeing to spend an evening with friends. Whether one lives at the spur of the moment or pursues long-term goals is a matter of emotionally intelligent conduct of weighing options in life. It is about having a balanced time perspective. Such as balanced time perspective includes the flexible switching between hedonistic enjoyment and thinking about the future.

In Katowice, Poland, governments had to decide on large-scale issues. These decisions, however, are made by individual politicians and they have to be backed by the people, us. People however are different. The variations in values, beliefs, and attitudes make up differences in character that varies between selfish hedonists and altruist who stand for the common good. Some of the variation in these personality factors can be mapped onto time psychology, on individual time orientations. This is how the psychology of time is connected to the survival of the human species. In order to save the eco-system of the planet it would be helpful if more people developed a balanced time perspective. We need more people im power who have a balanced, mindful time orientation. We should elect politicans who are more mindful. We should promote a balanced time perspective in our children who will become the decision makers of our future.


Wittmann, M., & Sircova, A. (2018). Dispositional orientation to the present and future and its role in pro-environmental behavior and sustainability. Heliyon 4 (10) October 2018, e00882.