What Your Time Travel Plans Reveal About Your Political Views

Think there’s nothing liberals and conservatives can agree on? Well….uh…you may be right. In fact, some new research suggests that should a liberal and a conservative team up to build a time machine, there’s a good chance they won’t agree on which direction to travel in.

What determines whether a person would prefer to visit the (certain) past or explore the (uncertain) future? We identified three factors that markedly affect people’s preference for (hypothetical) travel to the past or the future, respectively. Those who think of themselves as courageous, those with a more conservative worldview, and—perhaps counterintuitively—those who are advanced in age prefer to travel into the future.

It’s nice to see a study refute the stereotype of a scared elderly person pining for a simpler past. The fact that elderly people want to see the world that will outlive them suggests that deep down inside they cherish life and want to experience what will ultimately be stolen away by death.

As for conservatives’ desire to see the future, the authors speculate that it may have to do with their trust in the system.

Markets and individuals’ power to innovate will master…challenges. Less conservative people may be less inclined to believe in the current system’s self healing powers, and therefore, and in opposition to past centuries, be more pessimistic about the future.

Although the study ostensibly falls into the category of “linkbait with no practical use,” time preferences and perceptions do have real implications for public policy, particularly when it comes to education. For example, many people have criticized the Louisiana school voucher program for including certain religious schools that reportedly feature creationism films in their science classes. This is bad, but as Chester Finn explains, the system accounts for it. To remain eligible for the program a school’s students must do well on state science exams, and so students will either learn real science, or they’ll fail the tests, the school will become ineligible, and the students will find a new school. The net result of the program is that some students will immediately end up in better schools, and some students will initially end up in worse schools for a short amount of time, but then end up in better schools when the poor schools are booted from the program. The core issue is whether we’re willing to accept some of these short-term negative outcomes as the price we pay for bringing about better long-term outcomes.

You also see the “immediate cost vs. long term benefits” issue in school-closure fights, and it’s an idea that was central to the GOP opposition to the stimulus. Sure, all of these policy positions are politically motivated to some degree, particularly the GOP’s stimulus opposition, and thus time-preferences seem to mold to political leanings rather than the other way around. Still, people’s views about time, the past, and the future are important from a policy and public opinion standpoint, and research on them could ultimately prove quite fruitful.
Ettlin, F., & Hertwig, R. (2012). Back or to the future? Preferences of time travelers. Judgment and Decision Making, 373-382


3 Responses to What Your Time Travel Plans Reveal About Your Political Views

  1. Jack says:

    How is the past certain? The reason I’d want to time travel into the past is to find out what actually happened. What happened in Judea somewhere around 30 AD? What did dinosaurs look like exactly? Think of the mysteries you could solve!

  2. This is another case where I think we are using the term conservative all wrong. Atleast in terms of the traditional associations the term conjures up.

    The Right make conservative noises in order to please their religious base but they are the real radicals. They are the ones whose dreams include a world in which everyone is a company from birth with family and friendships being replaced by the concept of networks. Ever since Thatcher and Reagan the right has abandoned the concept of “society”. Ever climbing GDP built on perpetual change is a radical right wing ambition.

    The Left have had to become conservative in response – they view certain institutions as more important that the individual, they try and build cultural norms rather than leave society to individual choices, they emphasise processes over results and their impact on people’s traditional ways of life. “Give us back our weekends for quality family time” is a conservative left wing cause. Even Gay marriage is really a conservative left-wing goal – to reform culture (gay and straight) to support public and committed same-sex relationships, defined and celebrated collectively is pretty conservative.

    The term conservative is so confused now. I am never quite sure what is meant by it.

  3. Brendan says:

    Conservative and Liberalism aside, the original article juxtaposed it in terms of old and young people.

    It’s obvious, isn’t it – the young is simply the young – they like to seek anwsers – as to why the world is is today. Of course, there is a history book, but who is history written to suit? The fact is it’s nothing like witnessing it first hand for yourself.

    As for the elderly, they have seen it all (or at least enough to draw a curiosity satisfying conclusion) and would be bored of seeing it again. They would prefer to see something new.

    The research missed out a key point. Going back to the past – to change it. Would that bring about more uncertainty as the future?

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