Is the future more valuable than the past?
We differ markedly in our attitudes towards the future and past. We look forward in anticipation to tonight’s tasty meal or next month’s sunny holiday.
While we might fondly remember these pleasant experiences, we don’t happily anticipate them once they’re over. Conversely, while we might dread the meeting tomorrow, or doing this year’s taxes, we feel a distinct sort of relief when they’re done.
We seem to also prefer pleasant experiences to be in the future, and unpleasant experiences to be in the past. While we can’t swap tomorrow’s meeting and make it have happened yesterday, we might prefer that it had happened yesterday and was over and done with.
Asymmetries like these in how we care about the past and future can seem to make a lot of sense. After all, what’s done is done, and can’t be changed. Surely we’re right to focus our care, effort and attention on what’s to come.
But do we sometimes go too far in valuing past and future events differently? In this post I’ll consider one particular temporal asymmetry of value that doesn’t look so rational, and how its apparent irrationality speaks against certain metaphysical ways of explaining the asymmetry.
Eugene Caruso, Daniel Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson, investigated a temporal asymmetry in how we value past and future events (2008). Suppose that I ask you how much compensation would be fair to receive for undertaking 5 hours of data entry work.
The answer that you give seems to depend crucially on when the work is described as taking place. Subjects judged that they should receive 101% more money if the work is described as taking place one month in the future ($125.04 USD on average), compared to one month in the past ($62.20 USD on average). Even for purely hypothetical scenarios, where no one actually expects the work to take place, we judge future work to be worth much more than past work.
This value asymmetry appears in other scenarios as well (Caruso et al., 2008). Say your friend is letting you borrow their vacation home for a week. How expensive a bottle of wine do you buy as a thank you gift? If the holiday is described as taking place in the future, subjects select wine that is 37% more expensive.
Suppose that you help your neighbour move. What would be an appropriate thank you gift for you to receive? Subjects judge they should receive 71% more expensive bottles of wine for helping in the future, compared to the past.
Say you’re awarding damages for the suffering of an accident victim. Subjects judge that victims should be awarded 42% more compensation when they imagine their suffering as taking place in the future, compared to the past.
Philosophers like Craig Callender (2017) have become increasingly interested in the value asymmetry studied by Caruso and his colleagues. This is partly because there has been a long history of using asymmetries in how we care about past and future events to argue for particular metaphysical views about time (Prior, 1959).
For example, say you hold a ‘growing block’ view of time, according to which the present and past exist (and are therefore ‘fixed’) while future events are not yet real (so the future is unsettled and ‘open’). One might argue that a metaphysical picture with an open future like this is needed to make sense of why we care about future events more than past events. If past events are fixed, they’re not worth spending our time over—so we value them less. But because future events are up for grabs, we reasonably place greater value in them in the present.
Can one argue from the value asymmetry Caruso and his team studied, to a metaphysical view about time? Much depends on what features the asymmetry has, and how these might be explained.
When it comes to explaining the temporal value asymmetry, Caruso and his team discovered that it is closely aligned to another asymmetry: a temporal emotional asymmetry. More specifically, we tend to feel stronger emotions when contemplating future events, compared to contemplating past events.
These asymmetries are correlated in such a way as to suggest the emotional asymmetry is a cause of the value asymmetry. Part of the evidence comes from the fact that the emotional and value asymmetry share other features in common. For example, we tend to feel stronger emotions when contemplating our own misfortunes, or those of others close to us, than we do contemplating the misfortune of strangers.
The value asymmetry shares this feature. It is also much more strongly pronounced for events that concern oneself, compared to others. Subjects judge their own 5 hours of data entry work to be worth nearly twice as much money when it takes place in the future, compared to the past. But they judge the equivalent work of a stranger to be worth similar amounts of money, independently of whether the work is described as taking place in the future or in the past.
The same features that point towards an emotional explanation of the value asymmetry also point away from a metaphysical explanation. The value asymmetry is, in a certain sense, ‘perspectival’—it is strongest concerning oneself.
But if metaphysical facts were to explain why future events were more valuable than past ones, it would make little sense for the asymmetry to be perspectival. After all, on metaphysical views of time like the growing block view, events are either future or not. If future events being ‘open’ is to explain why we value them more, the asymmetry in value shouldn’t depend on whether they concern oneself or others.
Future events are not only open when they concern me – they are also open when they concern you. So the metaphysical explanation of the value asymmetry does not look promising.
If we instead explain the value asymmetry by appeal to an emotional asymmetry, we can also trace the value asymmetry back to further asymmetries. Philosophers and psychologists have given evolutionary explanations of why we feel stronger emotions towards future events than past events (Maclaurin & Dyke, 2002; van Boven & Ashworth, 2007).
Emotions help focus our energies and attention. If we generally need to align our efforts and attention towards the future (which we can control) rather than being overly concerned with the past (which we can’t do anything about), then it makes sense that we’re geared to feel stronger emotions when contemplating future events than past ones.
Note that this evolutionary explanation requires that our emotional responses to future and past events ‘overgeneralise’. Even when we’re asked about future events we can’t control, or purely hypothetical future events, we still feel more strongly about them than comparative past events, because feeling more strongly about the future in general is so useful when the future events are ones that we can control.
A final nail in the coffin for a metaphysical explanation of the value asymmetry comes from thinking about whether subjects take the value asymmetry to be rational. I began with some examples of asymmetries that do seem rational. It seems rational to prefer past pains to future ones, and to feel relief when unpleasant experiences are over.
Whether asymmetries like these are in fact rational is a topic of controversy in philosophy (Sullivan, forth.; Dougherty, 2015). Regardless, there is strong evidence that the value asymmetry that Caruso studied is taken to be irrational, even by subjects whose judgements display the asymmetry.
The methodology Caruso used involved ‘counterbalancing’: some subjects were asked about the future event first, some were asked about the past event first. When the results within any single group were considered, no value asymmetry was found. That is, when you ask a single person how they value an event (say, using a friend’s vacation home for a week) they think its value now shouldn’t depend on whether the event is in the past or future. It is only when you compare results across the two groups that the asymmetry emerges (see Table 1).
It’s as if we apply a consistency judgement and think that future and past events should be worth the same. But when we can’t make the comparison, we value them differently.
This strongly suggests that the asymmetry is not being driven by a conscious judgement that the future is really is worth more than the past, or by a metaphysical picture according to which it is. If it were, we would expect the asymmetry to be more pronounced when subjects were asked about both the past and the future. Instead, the asymmetry disappears.
Table 1: Average amount of money (USD) that subjects judge they would spend on a thank you gift for using a friend’s vacation home in the past or future (Caruso et al., 2008).
Investigations into how temporal asymmetries in value arise are allowing philosophers and psychologists to build up a much more detailed picture of how we think about time. It can seem intuitive to think of the past as fixed, and the future as open. Such intuitions have long been used to support certain metaphysical views about time.
But, while metaphysical views might seem to rationalise asymmetries in our attitudes, their actual explanation seems to lie elsewhere, in much deeper evolution-driven responses. We may even be adopting metaphysical views as rationalisers of our much more basic emotional responses.
If this is right, the value asymmetry not only provides a case study of how we can get by explaining asymmetric features of our experience without appeal to metaphysics. It suggests that psychology can help explain why we’re so tempted towards certain metaphysical views in the first place.
Callender, Craig. 2017. What Makes Time Special. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Caruso, Eugene M. Gilbert, D. T., and Wilson, T. D. 2008. A wrinkle in time: Asymmetric valuation of past and future events. Psychological Science, 19(8): 796–801.
Dougherty, Tom. 2015. Future-Bias and Practical Reason. Philosophers’ Imprint, 15(30): 1−16.
Maclaurin, James & Dyke, Heather. 2002. ‘Thank Goodness That’s Over’: The Evolutionary Story. Ratio, 15 (3): 276–292.
Prior, Arthur. N. 1959. Thank Goodness That’s Over. Philosophy. 34(128): 12−17.
Sullivan, Meghan. forth. Time Biases: A Theory of Rational Planning and Personal Persistence. New York: Oxford University Press.
Van Boven, Leaf & Ashworth, Laurence. 2007. Looking Forward, Looking Back: Anticipation Is More Evocative Than Retrospection. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 136(2): 289–300.