Published: May 8, 2018

English speakers take two perspectives on time, which are reflected in how we talk about time.

By Jayne Williamson-Lee
Course: FROP Independent Study
Advisor: Prof. Bhuvana Narasimhan
LURA 2018

1. The Ego-Moving Perspective: People think about themselves moving forward in time toward events in the future. We talk about events like we are approaching them and might say, “We are approaching the deadline.”

2: The Time-Moving Perspective: People can also think of themselves as being stationary in the present while events in time move toward them from the future. We talk about events like they are approaching us and might say, “The deadline is approaching.” 

Images courtesy of Boroditsky (2000)

Consider this statement: Next Wednesday’s meeting has been moved forward two days. 

Which day is the meeting now that it has been rescheduled?

(Image courtesy of Internet Memes)

It’s a bit of a trick question since you can answer Monday or Friday. 

Answering 'Monday' suggests that you are conceptualizing the meeting moving from Wednesday closer to you in the present moment. ('time-moving perspective')

Answering 'Friday' suggests that you are conceptualizing yourself moving toward the meeting now further in the future. ('ego-moving perspective')

Have you ever thought about how our emotional experiences might affect our view of time?

Two researchers, Lee and Ji (2013), wondered about this and conducted a study to see how people’s emotional experiences affect their time perspective. They asked participants to recall positive and negative memories and then asked them the ambiguous time question shown above. 

They found that people who recalled pleasant memories were more likely to take the ego-moving perspective. Conversely, people who recalled unpleasant memories were more likely to take the time-moving perspective. They propose that this is because people prefer to move toward positive stimuli and away from negative stimuli, which also applies to events in time. 

This showed that people change their time perspective depending on whether they perceive an event to be pleasant (positive) or unpleasant (negative). 

Other studies have also found a similar effect of positive events being associated with the ego-moving perspective and negative events with the time-moving perspective. 

These studies suggest that our emotional experiences affect our view of time.

Can our view of time influence our emotional experiences?

I wanted to know whether there was a reverse effect – can our view of time also affect our emotional experiences?

One study by Ruscher (2011) looked at how people’s perspective on time influenced their predictions of how others would feel about an anticipated future emotional experience. Participants in this study were primed to adopt the ego-moving or time-moving perspective, then read a story about a woman whose son had died. They were asked to estimate for how much time she would grieve after her son’s death.

Ruscher found that participants who took the ego-moving perspective expected her grieving period to be shorter, at about 5 months, in comparison to participants who took the time-moving perspective, who expected her grieving period to continue past 10 months. 

She proposes that the ego-moving perspective encouraged participants to conceptualize the woman actively moving forward in time, past her grief, and resuming her daily routine. In contrast, the time-moving perspective encouraged participants to think that her grief followed her as she moved passively into the future (constituting a longer grieving period). This study demonstrates that the two time perspectives are associated with active and passive movement through time, which influence how we perceive anticipated (future) emotional experiences. 

However, there were no studies that addressed whether our view of time affects how we perceive our past emotional experiences, so I decided to research it. In my study, I looked at how the two time perspectives affect whether we recall positive or negative memories. 

I predicted that people who take the ego-moving perspective would likely recall more positive memories. On the other hand, people who take the time-moving perspective would likely recall more negative memories. 

In this study, participants first read sentences depicting events moving through time (space-time metaphors). These sentences were encoded in the ego-moving or time-moving perspective in order to prompt people to think of time in a certain perspective. They then wrote about autobiographical memories. After, they rated whether their memory was positive or negative.

I found no evidence to suggest a difference in the retrieval of positive and negative memories based on whether participants were exposed to ego-moving or time-moving sentences. 

Although previous studies have demonstrated that our emotional experiences influence our perspective on time, this study does not provide evidence to suggest there is a reverse effect. It is possible that methodological improvements to the study may yield effects of time perspectives on memory valence. However, it may be that it is more difficult to find effects in this direction because of the complexity of our lived experiences. Further efforts are needed to understand other factors that may influence our emotional experiences and their interaction with time perspectives. 


Boroditsky, L. (2000). Metaphoric structuring: Understanding time through spatial metaphors. Cognition 75: 1–28.

Lee, Albert, and Li-Jun Ji. (2013). "Moving Away from a Bad Past and toward a Good Future: Feelings Influence the Metaphorical Understanding of Time." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143(1): 21-26. 

Ruscher, Janet B. (2011). "Moving Forward." Social Psychology 42(3): 225-30.