Does time extend asymmetrically into the past and the future?

Mon, 04/25/2022 - 14:42
Does time extend asymmetrically into the past and the future?
¿Se extiende el tiempo asimétricamente hacia el pasado y el futuro?

Does time extend asymmetrically into the past and the future?


Some studies have suggested the existence of a future asymmetry and have explained that the reason for this is that we walk forward. When we walk, things that are in front of us are the future things, while we are leaving the past things behind. Thus, as we walk we could feel that we are getting closer and closer to the future while leaving the past behind. In short, we perceive the future as if it was closer to us than the past.


Other studies suggest that the asymmetry could depend on the importance that each culture gives to the past and the future (temporal focus). Thus, in Western culture (future-focused), the future asymmetry would happen. However, in cultures that are past-focused, such as those of East Asia, the opposite would occur: a past asymmetry, perceiving the past psychologically closer than the future. These propositions indicate a temporal asymmetry and predict a negative relationship between past and future: the more we delve into the future, the less we delve into the past.


Carmen Callizo-Romero and Julio Santiago, CIMCYC researchers, carried out a cross-cultural study in which researchers from five other countries collaborated. They used several tasks to measure temporal asymmetry (self-continuity, time discounting, temporal distance and temporal depth) and two measures of temporal focus: one related to the temporal values of progress versus tradition; and the other related to the attention given to the future versus the autobiographical past. The study involved 1075 university students from different cultures: American, Spanish, Serbia, Bosniak, Croatian, Moroccan, Turkish and Chinese.


The results showed a future asymmetry in all tasks except temporal distance. However, this asymmetry was very small in most tasks and there was hardly any variation across cultures. In fact, only variation in temporal focus related to cultural values on temporal discounting was found.


In addition, the results also showed that past and future held a positive relation in the mind: the more we delve into the future, the more we delve into the past. In general, these findings question previous proposals of temporal asymmetry, as well as the scope of some results that had been taken for granted.



-Carmen Callizo-Romero: @email

-Julio Santiago: @email


Full reference

Callizo-Romero, C., Tutnjević, S., Pandza, M., Ouellet, M., Kranjec, A., Ilić, S., Gu, Y., Göksun, T., Chahboun, S., Casasanto, D., & Santiago, J. (2022). Does time extend asymmetrically into the past and the future? A multitask crosscultural study. Language and Cognition, 1–28.