Time orientation is principally the tendency to emphasize or prefer a certain time horizon in one’s domain of attitudes, actions, and perspectives, that is, a dominance of the past, present, or future. Time orientations can influence individuals’ behaviors and intertemporal decisions in diverse situations as a result of individuals’ unique “time personalities,” which ultimately guide perceptions, choices, and allocations of activities over time. Understanding the time orientation concept can therefore be beneficial in helping to classify people on a number of aspects related to perception and behavior; examples include motivation, risk taking, planning, and consumption of different products.
In general, individuals’ backgrounds are rooted in societies dominated by one of the three time orientations, where each is portrayed by varying characteristics. For example, past-oriented cultures, such as Tibet, tend to believe that all the great decisions were made in the past, and present society is a deteriorated adaptation of a past golden age. They have a poor view of innovation, and prefer to conserve what already exists. Present-oriented individuals, such as the Navajo Indians of northern Arizona, consider only what is at hand, without valuing how their behavior relates back to tradition, or how it will affect their future state. They are likely to be impulsive and seek immediate gratification, as greater but future rewards are worthless for them. Future-oriented cultures, such as Western societies, believe in setting goals and planning how to reach them, and value innovation highly.
The Concept Of Time Orientation
The concept of time orientation is multidisciplinary, given that it is intrinsic to human behavior. It has its roots in sociology, anthropology, educational studies, and experimental psychology and influences consumer behavior and global business management. It has been extensively associated with cultural phenomena, where it is pertinent to individual differences across cultures. Along these lines, cultural anthropology is a major contributor to the study of time orientation.
Anthropologists regard time orientations as cultural artifacts, because for them, it is not viable to assume that human beings are born with any type of innate “temporal sense”; in this viewpoint, people’s concept of time is always culture-based. Experimental psychology approaches a study of time orientation through psychometric scales used for measuring individual adaptation to cultural time patterns. Time orientation is also one of the cultural value dimensions proposed by Geert Hofstede and Michael Bond, where it was first referred to as Confucian dynamism and then renamed time orientation. In addition, Edward T. Hall highlights temporality as one of the main elements of the communication process in a cultural system.
It is, however, recurrent to find the terms time/ temporal orientation, time attitude, and time perspective often used interchangeably. Yet, each has slightly different meanings. Time or temporal orientation is the preferential direction in an individual’s thought in being primarily oriented to actions and objects in the past, present, or future. Time perspective is exemplified by its degree of structure, extension, concentration, and level of practicality. Time attitude describes an individual’s relatively positive or negative view of the past, present, and future.
Yet another important aspect of time orientation is the construction of time in the form of time perceptions. In consumer research, time orientation reflects how different people exhibit varying perceptions of time in various contexts, for example, for different purchases. Generally, research suggests there are three time perceptions: linear-separable, circular traditional, and procedural-traditional. Based on cultural background and a number of factors including education, the socialization process, time attitude, and social class, people in societies living within each time perception have different characteristics, expectations, and attitudes. The linear-separable time perception characterizes Western cultures, such as the Anglo-Americans, whereas the other two time perceptions characterize Eastern cultures and Oriental societies.
With the linear-separable time perception, time is perceived as stretching along a straight line starting from the past through the present and progressing into the future; time is separated into discrete slices allocated to specific activities, and it has a heavy future orientation attached to it, where the past is gone and cannot be recovered. In societies endorsing a circular-traditional time perception, such as Native Americans, time operates in a circular system, where events repeat according to some cyclical pattern. In contrast, the procedural-traditional time perception, characterizing individuals in Latin America, is driven by rituals and procedures, where actions are undertaken when the “time is right.” People who share traditional time perceptions rely heavily on the present, given that for them there is no new future, but only a recurrence of the past. Even within the same society, however, individuals are often not limited to one time perception, but rather may keep switching among them, depending on the performed task in terms of time and situation. Time orientation is thus one of the characterizations of different time perceptions.
Research also proposes that the role of parents in children’s education may impinge on their ensuing time orientation along with their personal past, in addition to the influence of age, gender, education level, and social class. For example, some research holds that lower-class, less-educated, and older individuals are likely to be more past and present-oriented than others with opposing characteristics. Furthermore, research suggests that future orientation is more often than not associated with Western societies, and connected with factors such as higher socioeconomic status and advanced academic achievement.
In sum, an individual’s particular time orientation can exercise a dynamic influence on important judgments, decisions, and actions. In multinational business dealings, businesspeople must avoid the common mistake of assuming a single universal perception of time, most commonly the linear-separable—that which is associated with a future orientation—and hence jeopardize important business relationships with people from other cultures and backgrounds.
- Robert J. Graham, “The Role of Perception of Time in Consumer Research,” Journal of Consumer Research (1981);
- Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language (Anchor Press, 1973);
- Geert Hofstede and Michael H. Bond, “Confucius and Economic Growth: New Insights Into Culture’s Consequences,” Organizational Dynamics (v.16/4, 1988);
- Alfons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business (McGraw-Hill Professional, 1997).
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