Past, Present, and Future: Time Orientation in Republican Frontrunners

October 29, 2015

by Kayla N. Jordan and James W. Pennebaker

Department of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin

After a spirited third debate among the Republicans, we are seeing how the Republicans are shaping up. In this post, we check out how the frontrunners – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Carly Fiorino, and Ben Carson – compare across the debates in terms of time orientation. Are they stuck in the past, rooted in the present, or looking to the future?

Time orientation is tied to reward sensitivity, impulse control, need for consistency, age, culture, and political orientation. At its core, time orientation tells us where people are looking and how they are relating to events. People focusing on the past are thinking about events that are certain, unchangeable, relatively knowable, and somewhat psychological distant. People who talk about the past rely on historical events when making decisions about about the present and future.  Research in our lab also suggests that past-oriented people tend to be relatively liberal, optimistic, and well-adjusted.

People oriented towards the present are thinking about current events that are psychologically close. Present-focused people tend to be more neurotic, depressed, and pessimistic than either past- of future-oriented people.  Among students in college, a present-focus predicts poorer class performance — probably because it hampers their ability to look at the big picture.

Future-oriented people focus on events that are not certain or knowable but are changeable and unpredictable and, like past events, are psychologically distant. Our research with thousands of students suggests that a future orientation is associated with general anxiety or worry with a deep sense of responsibility and conscientiousness.  Consequently, future orientation can be the result of a need for security, safety, and tradition.

It is relatively easy to measure time orientation by analyzing the words people use in everyday language using our text analysis program, LIWC2015. A past focus includes past tense verbs as well as words such as earlier and yesterday. A present focus includes present tense verbs and words like now and currently. A future focus involves using words such as will, foresee, and plan

p2 time orient

Note. Word frequencies  of each time orientation were standardized (z-scored) based on all debate speakers then the standard score was divided by the sum of the absolute values of scores of all time orientations and re-scaled such that a score of 50 represents the average across candidates. Within candidates, scores greater than 50 indicate that time orientation is dominant relative to the other orientations.

The graph is based on the debate language of the five Republican frontrunners in terms of their time orientation. People can be high or low on each of the dimensions.  So, for example, Bush is high on both past and future orientation whereas Trump is relatively high on all three. (In fact, Trump’s time orientation is unlike anyone else’s). What’s most interesting, however, is to focus on the highest dimension for each person.

Bush stands out by being the highest in past orientation.  It is consistent with his being relatively optimistic and upbeat. And, in comparison to the other candidates, relatively liberal (we’ll keep this little secret to ourselves — his campaign would not like to hear this). In the last debate, Bush focused more on his own past record (and the past mistakes of others) than the other candidates while still keeping an eye to the future.

Carson is unique in having a much higher focus on the present than to the past or future. Such an approach would hint at his not using much evidence from the past or long term considerations about the future in his decisions. As he is a relative newcomer to politics, he could be focusing on pressing, present problems without having a political past to draw from or a clear direction for future goals. Interestingly, this pattern might suggest that he could be more unhappy or worried than he sometimes appears.

Fiorina and Rubio have similar profiles — highest in future orientation and lowest in past.  Consistent with other findings, this strategy reflects their deep concerns about security, instability, and the unpredictability of the future. They would like to focus on making plans to improve the future with a sense of responsibility and dedication.  Like Carson, this pattern could indicate that Fiorina and Rubio may be more anxious or worried than they let on.

Finally, there is the odd man out — Donald Trump. Trump is slightly higher in future orientation but is still above average in past and present orientation. This pattern suggests that Trump has a more balanced time orientation and may shift his focus depending on the situation or topic. For example, when asked about economic issues in the last debate, Trump often referenced his past in business, but when asked about immigration, he focused more on his plans and goals for the future. Overall, it is premature to characterize Trump along the time dimensions; as he said in the last debate, perhaps he just likes being unpredictable.

Like our last post, these analyses reveal how the candidates are approaching the issues and give a hint as to how they may act if elected. There are a couple of ways in which the current analyses accomplish this. One, they give a sense of how the candidates are orienting their campaigns. Are they stuck rehashing past successes and failures or are they actually looking to the future and planning what they would do if elected? Two, these analyses hint at how the candidates may approach problems. What are the qualities that make a good president — optimism, pessimism, or conscientiousness, perhaps? How might a president with these different qualities approach decisions?

This analysis is only one part of the bigger picture. In weeks ahead as the election season progresses, we will be focusing on different dimensions of language to provide an in-depth, global look at how these political candidates are thinking and behaving.

References:

Guo, T., Ji, L., Spina, R., & Zhang, Z. (2012). Culture, temporal focus, and values of the past and the future. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(8), 1030-1040.

Robinson, M. D., Cassidy, D. M., Boyd, R. L., & Fetterman, A. K. (2015). The politics of time: Conservatives differentially reference the past and liberals differentially reference the future. Journal of Applied Social Psychology,45(7), 391-399. doi:10.1111/jasp.12306

Zimbardo, P. G., & Boyd, J. N. (1999). Putting time in perspective: A valid, reliable individual-differences metric. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1271-1288. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1271

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