The Window, the River, and the Novel: Examining Adolescents' Conceptions of the Past, the Present, and the Future

By Mello, Zena R.; Bhadare, Dilrani et al. | Adolescence, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The Window, the River, and the Novel: Examining Adolescents' Conceptions of the Past, the Present, and the Future


Mello, Zena R., Bhadare, Dilrani, Fearn, Emilene J., Galaviz, Michael M., Hartmann, Elizabeth S., Worrell, Frank C., Adolescence


Time perspective is a cognitive-motivational concept that refers to thoughts and attitudes toward the past, the present, and the future. Time perspective has been discussed as a factor that may foster positive developmental outcomes such as educational attainment (Phalet, Andriessen, & Lens, 2004) and may function as a powerful explanatory aspect of positive and negative behaviors such as studying and risky driving in college students (Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999). Even though early discussion of time perspective included the mention of distinct temporal dimensions, such as the past, the present, and the future (Lewin, 1939, 1942) and more recent research has described its multidimensional qualities (Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999), extant research has focused primarily on the future temporal dimension (Nurmi, 1991).

Studies have shown that positive attitudes about the future predict academic outcomes in low-income children (Wyman, Cowen, Work, & Kerley, 1993), as well as academic achievement in general adolescent populations (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002; Mello, in press), and more recently in academically talented adolescents (Mello & Worrell, 2006). Even further, recent research has shown that females report more positive attitudes about the future than do males (Mello, 2008). Although time perspective has been identified as a useful topic for investigation in adolescence, there are still serious limitations in our knowledge base on this construct. Thus, we used focus group methodology (Morgan, 1997) to solicit adolescents' thoughts and attitudes toward the past, the present, and the future.

Time Perspective

Conceptualization. Time perspective has been defined in terms of an orientation, intensity, and attitude toward temporal dimensions, such as the past, the present, and the future. Lewin (1939, 1942) proposed that time perspective was an important element of human behavior and suggested that the way people thought about each temporal dimension contributed to their behavior. More recently, Zimbardo and colleagues (Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999; Zimbardo, Keough, & Boyd, 1997) have discussed how individual variation in time perspective is a powerful predictor of positive and negative behaviors. Particularly, future orientation has been linked to hours studying for school, whereas present orientation has predicted risky driving. The research conducted by Zimbardo and colleagues has expanded our knowledge of this topic, but has focused exclusively on college-aged individuals.

Adolescence. Adolescence is a particularly relevant developmental period to investigate time perspective given developmental-psychological phenomena. The acquisition of advanced cognitive abilities is a trademark of this stage and is thought to include abstract thinking such as considering the hypothetical (Keating, 1990). In discussing the development of cognitive abilities, Piaget (1955) remarked that the conceptualization of time was an indicator of cognitive capacity. Further, Erikson's (1968) notion of identity formation, another hallmark of adolescence, included temporal qualities with the process of forming an identity involving the integration of past, present, and future selves.

Research provides some support for the study of time perspective in adolescence. In an early study of 9th grade, 10th grade, and college sophomores, variation in future ideas was observed by grade level, with older participants reporting more existential events such as the anticipation of change in their personality in the future compared to younger participants (Greene, 1986). Seginer (1992) reported that 9th and 12th graders indicated a similar number of expressed hopes and fears regarding the future. Most recently, in a study with academically talented adolescents aged 11 to 18, Mello and Worrell (2006) observed that older adolescents reported more hedonism, a focus on pleasure and living in the moment, than their younger counterparts. …

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