The Factor of Time in Goal-Directed Behavior

This essay will start by expounding on the concluding topics from my last paper; however, I intend to take more of a thematic approach for this essay, providing a general treatment of aspects relating to goal-construction, valuation of goals, and the influence of time perspective on the perceived salience of future goals.

Starting with this last topic of time’s influence can help to explain the topics of goal valuation and construction. I believe that how we perceive time (i.e., time perspective) affects how we arrange our mental landscape, including our future goals. Therefore, this element is integral to the fundamental understanding of what goals genuinely are.

A thought experiment can help extend the influence of time perspectives to our perception of valuation. For example, let us suppose you receive an email informing you that next week you will receive $1000 if you meditate for 30 minutes each day. Also, for the sake of this example, let us assume that $1000 is considered a high-value reward and that you dislike the act of meditation, so the task of 30 minutes daily is appraised as a high-effort task.

Given these conditions, receiving this email will likely produce enough motivation to stimulate committed action for at least a week until the monetary reward is received.

To this point, I presume this thought experiment seems straightforward and is aligned with how you would respond to this hypothetical situation, given the specific conditions. However, what would change if the time commitment required was doubled to two weeks? If you are like me, then this time expansion would not significantly change my response to the valued reward.

However, if we continue iterations increasing the time commitment, then there would eventually be a point where the threshold between reward value and effort is reversed. This shift would result in the $1000 reward value being less than that of the magnitude of the perceived effort and commitment required to receive the reward (assuming a stable condition of dislike for meditation across time).  

Now, let us manipulate the other side of the equation and increase the reward value to $10,000, with the daily meditation requirement being over a year. At this point, we could bounce back-and-forth manipulating variables in our thought experiment and noticing how our perception changes with each manipulation.

However, this hypothetical has served the primary purpose I wished to highlight: dilating or constricting time horizons for given goals directly influences one’s motivational levels, despite the constant objective outcome value.

A quote on reward valuation may help to emphasize the significance of the variable of time:

“Reward valuation involves assessment of the relative value of rewards that guide approach and motivated behaviors. For example, rewards of higher value are expected to produce greater anticipation of and motivation to obtain the reward compared to rewards of lower value. Prior experiences allow individuals to create representations of reward value for future stimuli” (Der-Avakian et al., p. 240, 2016).

Our thought experiment encompassed much of what this quote highlights, only it provides an academic lens. For example, it states a direct connection between the valuation of a reward and the degree of behavioral motivation; moreover, it demonstrates the correlation between expected reward value and anticipatory motivation.

However, I chose to introduce this quote not solely to corroborate our thought experiment; instead, it interested me that the variable of time is only implied in the last sentence of this quote. As we have demonstrated in our hypothetical, manipulating the variable of time affects reward valuation and, consequently, motivation levels. 

Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd (2009) posited the time perspective theory (TPT) in their book The Time Paradox Time. This theory explains that people vary in terms of their time orientation. Zimbardo developed an inventory for categorizing these different types, and if you are interested, you can learn more here:

For this essay, we will not delve into the specifics of Zimbardo and Boyd’s time perspective theory. Instead, I mention their work to note the emphasis they place on the influence time has on almost all aspects of our decision-making processes; furthermore, their work was driven by the acknowledgment that the influence of our time perspectives is so far-reaching that it has been overlooked (as is often the case with aspects of life that appear so elementary).

However, I will borrow a few of the terms from TPT to help integrate the theory’s significance into our discussion of goal construction, reward valuation, and motivation. TPT divides time perspectives into six categories: past negative, past positive, present hedonism, present fatalism, future, and transcendental future (Metcalf & Zimbardo, 2016). 

Each person presumably possesses all of these to some degree, but there are differences among individuals regarding which time perspective is dominant. While people typically do not have only one dominant time perspective, we will adopt this notion for the sake of simplicity.  

Let us imagine a person whose dominant time perspective is present hedonism. This perspective is associated with maximizing pleasure in the immediate while minimizing or avoiding potential pain; it focuses more on the short-term goals and payoffs rather than the long-term consequences. Conversely, someone dominant in the transcendental future TP would have the opposite priorities.

In my last essay, I concluded by stating that people diagnosed with schizophrenia have impairments with formulating mental representations of future events; consequently, the dysregulation in their motivational systems is mainly attributed to impaired anticipatory motivation (Der-Avakian et al., p. 237, 2016).

Interestingly, both Major Depression Disorder (MDD) and schizophrenia are characterized by diminished functioning of anticipatory motivation (or pleasure); moreover, the consummatory pleasure pathways are intact, at least for those with schizophrenia (Wu et al., 2017).

These findings suggest a connection between diminished or impaired anticipatory motivation and these individuals’ inability to construct mental representations of future events, resulting in the inability to formulate concrete behavioral steps directed toward a specific desired end goal.

To link this back to our initial thought experiment, individuals with these impairments may respond consistently despite manipulations to the time variable because their conception of the future is blended. For example, they may experience the same degree of motivation for the task regardless of whether the task’s time commitment is on the order of weeks or years because their time perspective for future events is undifferentiated.

That is, if we were initially able to manipulate the duration of time required for receiving the task-dependent reward ($1000, for the initial example), and alter our level of anticipatory motivation by increasing or decreasing the time commitment of the task, then we are demonstrating some degree of discrimination in appraising more shorter time durations with a more immediate reward and vice versa.

However, imagine the future is homogenous and undifferentiated. It comprises only unknown potentialities that cannot be weighted differently because the knowledge we possess for events next week versus those next year is, practically speaking, both equally unknowable. If we make mental calculations from this understanding of time, then it would be most reasonable to adopt the time perspective of present hedonism and focus on maximizing the pleasure in the present rather than sacrificing present-focused reward for a reward in the future, even if the future reward appeared to possess a higher reward value. To some extent, the magnitude of reward value depends on our ability to conceive of time.  

We can turn to one final thought experiment to conclude this exposition and illustrate this point of reward value’s dependence on time perspective (I am using this term loosely, not strictly in a TPT manner). Let us imagine we are given the choice of receiving $1000 in the present or $10,000 after five years. Now, there is no task commitment required for this hypothetical, isolating the two variables of reward value and time perspective; moreover, because this is a hypothetical, the value and purchasing power of the currency will not change over time.

Given these conditions, the decision of which to take is entirely constructed within one’s time perspective. For example, while countless subjective variables could affect one’s decision, all of these are embedded within a mental framework of how we perceive time.

You might have an upcoming bill that needs to be paid not to lose your place of living. In this case, the future reward is discounted relative to the immediate reward that could help your situation. Conversely, you may be doing well financially and plan to retire in the coming years, and the future reward appears like a worthwhile addition. Given no urgent need for the $1000 in the immediate present, this reward seems relatively less than the $10,000 reward.

Again, I could continue to write what-if examples that account for additional factors that would influence one’s decision; however, this is not the point of this hypothetical. Instead, I wish to highlight that the decision is based on probabilistic reasoning. The reward after five years relies most heavily on this type of reasoning because it accounts for a variety of what-if scenarios and factors that only apply when projected forward over an interval of time.

However, suppose we adopt the mindset of the individual unable to mentally construct future representations, including the various likelihoods of certain potentialities occurring and accounting for other factors that may emerge over a futuristic time interval. This long-term, or distant, reward would likely be perceived as an ambiguous abstraction. Consequently, it would probably only be accounted for in comparison to the reward’s face value. With one’s ability to understand the present time intact, the immediate factors are experienced as more concrete and understandable. Therefore, the immediate reward value would likely be appraised as having a higher value than the futuristic one, despite this future reward value being several orders of magnitude more in objective weight.

This has been a lengthy and, admittedly, more muddled exposition than I initially had intended. However, I believe it has served to elucidate some of the nuanced connections among appraising reward value, constructing goals, and incorporating the significant influence exerted by the variable of time (and one’s time perspective).

Moreover, I would like to conclude with foreshadowing a topic that I wish to explore further in subsequent writings: Are there parallels between the mental processes for conceptualizing distant future events and distances in physical reality? For example, we use the phrase “far off” or “in the distant future” to describe events that are far away from the present moment, and, in terms of physics, there is an intimate connection between space and time. Therefore, I am curious to explore if we conceptualize physical distance similarly to how we mentally represent distances in time.  


Der-Avakian A., Barnes S., Markou A., & Pizzagalli D. (2016) Translational assessment of reward and motivational deficits in psychiatric disorders. In: Robbins T.W., Sahakian B.J. (eds) Translational Neuropsychopharmacology. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences.

Metcalf, B. R., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2016). Time Perspective Theory. In H. L. Miller (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Psychology (1st ed., pp. 937–939). SAGE Publications, Inc.

Wu, H., Mata, J., Furman, D. J., Whitmer, A. J., Gotlib, I. H., & Thompson, R. J. (2017). Anticipatory and consummatory pleasure and displeasure in major depressive disorder: An experience sampling study. Journal of Abnormal Psychology126(2), 149–159.

Zimbardo, P., & Boyd, J. (2009). The Time Paradox. Adfo Books.