The Temporal Dynamics of Self and Identity: The Fluidity of Subjective Time in People's Representations of the Past and Future

Speakers: Anne Wilson (Department of Psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University)
Donna Palmateer Pennee (Department of English, University of Western Ontario)

Date: 30th October 2013, 3:30pm
Venue: Togo Salmon Hall (TSH) B106


Individuals' understanding of their current identity does not occur in a temporal vacuum. As William James observed, the "present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time." In my research on the self over time, I examine how personal identity is contingent on the temporally extended self. At the same time, our construction of the past and future are affected by our present beliefs, goals, and biases. The self over time can be thought of as a series of interconnected individuals with differing degrees of overlap with the present. However, because people often want to feel connected to desirable past and future selves or events more than to undesirable or unwanted temporal episodes, individuals often shift their perceptions of overlap in ways that allow them to feel more connected to the good than the bad. One way to regulate these connections is to alter our perception of the passage of time, which is itself highly malleable. I define subjective time as the feeling of proximity or distance to a self or event, regardless of its location in actual calendar time. A past event from a year ago can feel like yesterday while another might seem like ancient history. People can perceive past or future events as subjectively close or distant in time. When people situate a temporal event as subjectively near in time, that event directly affects present identity. Subjectively remote selves lose their power to directly flatter or taint the present self and instead are often contrasted with it, highlighting change over time. People's representations of time and temporal selves are fluid and bi-directional: thinking of a particular self can affect perceptions of time, but subjective time can also affect how a temporal self is represented. I will describe and discuss experimental research evidence for how these basic connections between selves over time have implications for how people think about the past and future. Specifically, I will provide research examples of how people shift their appraisals of the quality and subjective timing of personal, relational, and collective memories.  I will also describe how identity concerns can affect how people think about the future, from their own personal goals (e.g. academic, health, etc) to their thinking about collective future outcomes such as climate change and ecological sustainability. In sum, how we think about the times of our lives can broadly affect our identity, well-being, relationships, decision-making, and goal-pursuit.