The Pragmatic Prospection Principle

People think about the future frequently. Why do they do this? The main answer is that they think about it because they want to do something about it. More than a century ago, William James proposed that thinking is for doing, and a series of subsequent thinkers has reaffirmed the wisdom and accuracy of that claim. It applies very well to thinking about the future.

One vital implication is that people think about the future in rough proportion to how much they can do about it. Most prospection is not idle fantasy, grim contemplation of the inevitable, or wondering how things will turn out. Such thoughts do arise now and then: People's minds roam far and wide and occasionally entertain all sorts of thoughts, including utterly useless ones. But when people think about the future, most of the time they are focused on what can be done about it.

Apart from determinists, most people recognize a fundamental difference between the future and the past. The future can be changed; the past cannot. The future comes at us as a set of possibilities. The moving present is the process by which the fixed past crystallizes out of these possible futures.

People do think about the past, despite the fact that it cannot be changed. Does that disprove James's assertion that thinking is for doing, and by implication does it discredit the pragmatic prospection principle? Perhaps not.

For one thing, people think much more about the future than the past. Evidence for this comes from a recent study that tracked people's thoughts (Baumeister et al., 2015). They collected data on the time frame of people's thoughts. Almost 500 people in Chicago took part in the study. They agreed to report on their thoughts for 3 days at randomly chosen moments. The subjects carried cell phones that were programmed to interrupt them at six randomly chosen moments during the day. When the cell phone signaled them, their instructions were to notice exactly what they had been thinking and answer a series of questions about it. They could fail to respond if necessary (e.g., if they were making love, being robbed at gunpoint, or listening to their boss tell them what to do, they might not be able to stop and respond to our questionnaire), but the response rate was pretty good (75%), and even if they couldn't always stop at the precise second the beeper went off, the median response time was 8 minutes between signal and answer. These are probably the best data anyone has gotten thus far to track what goes through people's minds as they go about their daily activities.

Not all thoughts have a time frame. Baumeister et al. (2015) found that about a quarter of the time (1 of every 4 responses), people reported that their thoughts did not have a time aspect. But for the large majority that did have a time dimension, thoughts about the present were most common, followed by the future, followed distantly by the past.

More precisely, people thought about the future three times as much as the past. Other researchers have come to similar conclusions using less laborious (and perhaps less precise) measures. People also think plenty about the present, indeed roughly twice as much as about the future (and thus six times as much as about the past). The present is the biggest focus of doing because it's what can be affected immediately by one's actions. If thinking is for doing, as James proposed, then one would expect a breakdown something like that: lots of thinking about the present, some about the future, and only a little about the past.

Indeed, the most common categories of thoughts about the present are all about doing. Baumeister et al. (2015) asked people what they were thinking about, and thoughts about the present clustered most heavily in the categories "doing what I intend to do / doing what I am supposed to be doing" and "paying attention / zeroed in on what I am doing." Not far behind those were two other categories. One was "trying to figure out what is going on," which is just as pragmatic, because one can hardly act effectively without understanding what is happening in the situation.

The other was "implications of the present for the future." That, too, seems quite pragmatic, as well as prospective.

When people were asking about the past, a pragmatic streak emerged once again. The single most common category of thoughts about the past was "implications of the past for the future." Note the parallel with thoughts about the present, where implications for the future were again a prominent category (45% of thoughts about the past involved implications for the future, thus nearly half, and about 29% of thoughts about the present involved implications for the future).

The next most common category of thoughts about the past involved "trying to make sense of it, trying to understand." Perhaps we cannot change the past, but we can seek to understand it. The quest for understanding may or may not be pragmatic. Still, effective learning requires that one understand what happens. You can't learn useful lessons from the past if you seriously misunderstand what happened.

Learning brings us back to the multiplicity of future possibilities. Indeed, the main (and arguably the only) reason for bothering to learn is that the acquired knowledge will be useful in knowing how to act so as to bring about a better future rather than a worse one. People learn from their mistakes so as not to repeat them, which thus assumes that it is possible to repeat one's mistakes and it is possible to avoid doing so. In the language of learning theory, there are both rewards and punishments, and intelligence is for recognizing what actions lead to each, with the pragmatic result that next time around one can improve one's chances of getting the reward rather than the punishment. Doing the right thing is only meaningful insofar as it is possible to do the wrong thing.

We have said that pragmatic concerns provide less reason to think about the past than the future. That could account for the lower frequency of thoughts about the past than about present or future. Even beyond that, thoughts about the past had some features that were not very pragmatic. After exploring implications for the future and trying to understand, the next most frequent category of thoughts about the past involved replaying things over and over. That suggests a kind of involuntary rumination. Some people get mentally stuck in the past, perhaps especially if something bad has happened that troubles them, and their minds run over it again and again.

What do people think when they think about the future?

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