Time Perspectives, Global Stability, and a Future Worth Living

I found the book The Time Paradox to be an incredibly enlightening read. I have spent much of my life paying close attention to how I spend my time, but many of the insights in this book were new to me.

The authors, Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd, have done a great job of carefully dealing with each topic that they raise. They raise many worthwhile topics in the book, but the one I want to talk about here is how we must change the way we approach the problem of suicide bombers.

The case for peace and global stability – alleviating poverty to give people a future that is worth living.

They deal with some common, and incomplete, explanations of the reasons why suicide bombers do what they do. The explanations they consider, analyze, and find to be incomplete explanations are:

  1. Suicide bombers are crazy, insane, or irrational. This turns out not to be true once we look at the data. These people have different sets of fundamental beliefs than most of us do, but that does not mean that they are crazy from a standpoint of mental health.
  2. Suicide bombers are brainwashed. While many people consider the indoctrination that suicide bombers undergo the same thing as brainwashing, it is actually not. Brainwashing is the forceful destruction and then replacement of a person’s beliefs and attitudes. I disagree with Zimbardo and Boyd on this point however. In the common usage of the terms, indoctrination and brainwashing are very similar. The indoctrination of suicide bombers is the foundation of their belief system, and is probably the most major factor in their decision to commit the act of bombing.
  3. Suicide bombers are driven by poverty and an ‘unbearable present’. This to some extent is true, since their societies are quite poor. It seems however that suicide bombers themselves tend to not be poor compared to their society.
  4. Religious extremism is what drives suicide bombers to their acts. It seems however that suicide bombers are no more religious than other members of their society.
  5. Rational strategy. Suicide bombing is an extremely cost-effective way to garner notice. Organizations with no respect for human life can run their numbers and figure out that the cheapest way to accomplish their goals is through suicide bombing. Boyd and Zimbardo only look at this explanation briefly. My interpretation of their writing is this: Rational strategy seems to be a real fact. Terrorist groups certainly seem to do this. However, similar to the above four factors, this does not fully explain the fact of suicide bombing.

Zimbardo and Boyd present an alternative way of looking at the problem, through what they call the transcendental future time orientation.
This time orientation is primarily based around the concept of life after death. Combined with insights from the other time perspectives, Zimbardo and Boyd paint a compelling picture of the beliefs of a suicide bomber in the book.

Without a present that they enjoy, or a past that they can recall positively, suicide bombers are left with nothing positive that they can expect from their material future. Zimbardo and Boyd say:

We now face an enemy whose visions of the mundane future lie smoldering in the ruins of Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

The people in these war-torn and oppressed places are left with essentially nothing but their transcendental future and the possibilities that it presents.

The key point that we must understand is that we cannot defeat such an enemy by destroying their mundane future (blowing up infrastructure, political instability, military occupations, etc). By destroying their mundane future we are ensuring that the only hope that they have is for the transcendental future. If their belief system dictates that the fastest road to heaven is via the act of suicide bombing, then as we continually destroy their mundane lives, increasing numbers of willing bombers will be lining up to take the trip.

What can we do?

What is the answer? Give them a mundane future worth living for. Help them build up their society so that there are hopes and dreams that are genuinely achievable in the material world. As Boyd and Zimbardo eloquently state:

We will win the war on terror not by destroying our enemy’s future but by nurturing it.

They go on to say:

Only by building a mundane future full of hope, optimism, respect, health,and prosperity can the motivational power of the transcendental future be balanced. Without mundane future goals, Muslims have little desire left to preserve this life, and understandably, look to the transcendental future to realize their dreams. Restoring the motivational power of mundane future goals will prevent the transcendental future from being the lone oasis in an otherwise desiccated life.

What should we do?

Before anything meaningful can be accomplished, we must give these people their present back. To do this, we need to meet their basic needs. Investments in basic services and infrastructure are necessary so that their present is not a constant struggle for survival.

There are a number of key factors that lead to a self-reinforcing state of poverty. We go into them in more detail in our other article about what keeps communities locked in the extreme poverty trap.

It is only after basic needs are taken care of that we can turn our attention to helping these people build a worthwhile future for themselves. While there are many facets to this discussion, including additional poverty problems due to culture and governance, Zimbardo and Boyd focus on the cultivation of intrinsic motivation in citizens.

Individual effort towards a better or more prosperous future must be encouraged and rewarded. One crucial aspect of this is actually well-enforced personal property rights. Without these, the fruits of labour can be taken away from the individual. Property rights are understood to be a necessary foundation for the creation of a market system for distributing wealth (and rewarding individual productivity and achievement).

In this instance, prosperity (and everything it brings with it) is a goal because it creates a mundane future that is more worth living for. As Zimbardo and Boyd say, what we should aim to do is offer hope ‘on the way to the Promised Land’. People will keep their beliefs about a transcendental future, but are more likely to consider their lives worth living.

What about you?

I scored the following on the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory.

Past-negative: 2.00

Past-positive:  4.89

Present-hedonistic:  3.80

Present-fatalistic: 1.22

Future: 4.00

Transcendental-future: 3.00

Find out what your time perspectives are by taking the test here. I am very curious about the different sorts of time perspectives there are among Vision of Earth readers. If you take the test I encourage you to come back here and comment.

I highly recommend the book, which you can find for a pretty decent price (much less than I paid actually, and in several different formats) here at Amazon.

Ben Harack

I'm an aspiring omnologist who is fascinated by humanity's potential.

3 thoughts to “Time Perspectives, Global Stability, and a Future Worth Living”

  1. Past-negative 4.60
    Past-positive 2.56
    Present-hedonistic 3.33
    Present-fatalistic 2.67
    Future 3.38
    Transcendental-future 1.70

  2. Past-negative 1.70
    Past-positive 3.33
    Present-hedonistic 3.53
    Present-fatalistic 2.11
    Future 3.38
    Transcendental-future 3.20

  3. For what it’s worth…

    Past-negative 4.50
    Past-positive 2.11
    Present-hedonistic 2.33
    Present-fatalistic 3.11
    Future 3.77

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