The Psychology of Time: How our Perception of Time Affects Us


No matter how old we are or where we live, people everywhere—and throughout history—have an innate sense of time. Sure, it may have taken thousands of years for humans to manufacture commercial clocks, make those clocks reliable, and to establish time zones around the globe, but humans have been measuring time in one way or another from the earliest days of homo sapiens’ existence on this planet.

And, in academic circles, time is usually relegated to the realm of physicists, but psychologists have also weighted in on time. Time Perspective Theory (TPT) and Time Perspective Therapy are models for how some psychologists explore how humans perceptive, manage, and think about time.

Here’s how it works.

Normally, time is divided neatly into past, present, and future. However, in TPT, time has the following six categories:

Past positive people
Past negative people
Present hedonism people
Present fatalistic people
Future positive people
Future negative people

Exploring each of these time divisions in great detail remains outside the scope of this article, but identifying each of these psychological “time zones” may give readers a sense of how humans perceive time. That said, however, “past negative” persons and “future negative” persons tend to have a negative view of both what their past was like and what their future will be. Time perspective therapy attempts to analyze an individual’s distorted view of a person’s past and future with the aim of more of a realistic perspective.

Phillip Zimbardo, the renowned psychologist, has this to say about the perception of time: “When one of these time perspectives is weighted too heavily, we can lose out on what’s really happening now and/or lose sight of what could happen in our future.” He adds: “This can cause us to be unsteady, unbalanced, or temporally biased.”

In other words, Zimbardo is saying that a distorted view of time—our past, present, and future—can lead to biased conclusions about how things really are in our lives. Time perception therapy aims to correct these biased distortions in favor of a more neutral view. After all, for example, our pasts are most likely never completely bad or are completely good. The truth, as is said, is usually somewhere in the middle.

Zimbardo and other psychologists make clear that there are healthy and unhealthy time perspectives. Zimbardo lists what an ideal time perspective may look like:

High past positive/low negative past
Low present fatalism/moderate selected present hedonism
Moderately high future-positive orientation

Conversely, an unhealthy time perspective looks like:

High past negative/low past positive
High present fatalism/high present hedonism
Low future/no future orientation

To conclude, it is worth repeating that time is a concrete fact of our reality, along with the three other space dimensions, but it is also something that humans perceive and interpret, which can have affects on our mental health. Finally, as noted above, it is a good strategy to try to minimize any extremely negative interpretations of our past, present, and future.

There’s always time to get it right.

Brooke Lamberti


Brooke Lamberti is a content writer based out of Scranton, Pennsylvania. She received a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Marywood University, and has prior career experience working in social work and domestic violence advocacy. She has a passion for writing and helping others.

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