Philip Zimbardo on "The Secret Powers of Time"

In this wonderfully animated video, Professor Philip Zimbardo (of the famed Stanford Prison Experiment) "conveys how our individual perspectives of time affect our work, health and well-being. Time influences who we are as a person, how we view relationships and how we act in the world." (Thanks, Katie!)


  1. That was great. I realize that my time perspective has changed as I’ve gotten older. When I communicate with the people who are faster I have to remember that they don’t want to take the time to read stuff that is too long. I used to be like that, standing in front of the Microwave, “I don’t have all minute!”

  2. Actually, it looks like it’s also a part of the progression of a civilization’s development, analogous to what Douglas Adams said: “…Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases – those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication…”. I always felt that the fast-paced societies have not yet moved away from the Survival phase… no time for anything else.

  3. Great lecture…

    …and I have to say, I love these RSA visualizations. The artistry is awesome, and it’s so much more interesting than watching someone walk around on stage (could be an attention span problem ;) ).

    1. It occurred to me that this is exactly the sort of thing he was talking about when he was discussing education. It’s not about attention span, it’s about communicating in a novel way (one that works for you and I). That’s why this is a PHENOMENAL example of the very thing he is trying to illustrate.

      The amount of information I gathered from that ten minutes HAD to have been significantly higher than just listening to the audio, and even more so than if it was presented in a school setting.

      I am personally torn. I see it two ways; 1) we are crippling ourselves with the need for constant stimulation and 2) we are able to do so much more because of it.

  4. Talk about being present oriented – I would hate to watch those cartoons being drawn in real time…

    But in all seriousness, the RSA visualizations truly are great. I’ve always considered the creation of art more interesting than the final product. I’m even more amazed at how tightly the animation ties in with the language.

    As to the content of the speech, there was a lot of intriguing concepts but it seemed to cover such a wide field that I have a hard time deciding on the point of the whole thing. Is it all just background leading up to the claim that technology is making us less patient? Or is it less judgmental, suggesting that a variety of time-perspectives are valid, and the US’s is simply shifting?

    1. No! I also grumbled. And I had to watch it in three seperate increments (I finally had time to finish it, synchronously enough, while waiting for some downloaded logs to parse).

  5. For those people who can handle a longer lecture-style format, Zimbardo has a 40-minute version of this presentation that provides more context, detail and the research data behind the findings that are summarized in the 10-minute version:

  6. I have a hard time taking Zimbardo’s word on things. Mainly because of how fucked up Stanford Prison Experiment was, but it also doesn’t help that he looks like Satan.

  7. Yes, Hools Verne, I agree entirely.

    He prefaces the Stanford Prison Experiment with the claims it’s all above board and purely scientific.


    He’s a pervert, I’m sure he had a hard-on during the entire experiment.

    Not to mention, that despite claiming to have done proper background checks on the participants of that experiment, the lead prison guard had apparently suffered at the hands of a real prison guard in a real prison for 15 years.

    Yeah… way to get unbiased results!

    It was basically a bedroom roleplay writ large, with naive participants.

    1. “He prefaces the Stanford Prison Experiment with the claims it’s all above board and purely scientific.”

      1971? An experiment like this? Sure…it probably was. Human subjects boards looked for things like physical abuse back then and overlooked a lot of mental abuse. 40 years ago, the world was a different place when it came to psychology.

      “claiming to have done proper background checks on the participants of that experiment”

      I can’t believe he didn’t have Interpol run all the applicants, or look up their status on facebook to see if their history included abuse in jail.

      One of the problems with a lot of research of this kind — even today — is that we as researchers have to use the subjects we can find. More often than not, they are undergrad students taking a psych class that need extra credit. This is an extremely biased crowd towards two populations…the future psychologists that don’t need the better grade but want to suck up to the professor for letters of rec, or the students that took psych as their science of choice thinking it would be a piece of cake and realized by midterm they need every piece of extra credit they can get to barely pass.

      Either side, it biases the results. Considering the vast majority of studies out there are based around these populations, you get piss poor results, and back to the point…you aren’t going to be digging too deep into someone background. Might want to, but the resources are just not there to do it. Even today, to do a halfassed background check is $75…and this barely covers anything. We generally get about $30 a head…so unless someplace like Eli Lilly is paying (i.e., even grantwise, you aren’t going to get much…someone pretty much has to hire you to complete your research so they can own a chunk of it)…

      But of course it is easy to snicker and point to prove how much more you know than the professors. Especially 40 years later.

    2. Not much logic shown by you two. I guess you are the type that only watch movies blessed by a particular critic… a type of spoon feeding need.

      Who cares if it is Charlie Manson giving the speech – this is a great perspective of how we view and act with time

  8. Very interesting but it’s not that simple,
    Any way,the digital time is the most successful attempt so far of synthesizing many times zones at once hence it interactivity and the new,more precise and realistic family values it enables.
    The digital time,merge past and future,north and south to new dimension which lays new borders that is changing our perception of time and space and consequently all fields of life needs to adapt to the new and better reality.
    learning,working,loving, all this things are changing drastically,
    In short,
    Eating with your family have no meaning anymore and that’s a good thing/

  9. Very cool vid. Its common knowledge in the call centre industry that a minute spent waiting on the phone is felt as five minutes.

    This is very Mcluhanesque stuff; its a perfect expression of the shift from the linear, fragmented awareness fostered by the Gutenberg media to the immersive simultaneity of the electric media. It took the computer age to show what he meant. Perhaps you have just to find new ways to thread a string of little dopamine hits through whatever your presenting, using cool graphics and humour and the occasional terrifying statistic, to get your point across. The pace of things forces us to get our points across quicker.

    It sounds like a terrifying thing for teachers to face, especially ones without proper funding. This research could help to make an argument against the coming wave of brutal cuts to education budgets across the globe (that are only just getting started).

  10. Is anyone else completely unimpressed by the random vague generalities he is spewing? I kind of want to call bullshit on about 75% of the sentences he uttered.

    Tho yes, the cartoons are great.

  11. There are so many gross generalizations in this, I don’t know where to begin( Protestant vs. Catholic countries? HFS!). If you grew up watching porn and play video games you don’t “learn social skills, emotional/social intelligence”? (Oh dear, I guess reading books would cause the same problem!!!) It reminds me of “Freakanomics”. It’s sexed-up junk science. Statistical sleight of hand.

    He claims: “You can’t have family values if you don’t eat together.” Seriously, are there really people in this forum who agree with such a lame assertion? Or is everyone too distracted by the animation to listen?

    This is 10 minutes of “let me tell you the problem with kids these days…”

    1. Anon I subscribe completely this comment of yours! But I am not from US can you explain me what HFS stand for ?

  12. Other than an increased awareness of my own time related idiosyncrasies, this talk seems to provide some insight into the Red Blue divide.

  13. I agree that this is a great video to watch, but filled with generalities. In fact, without the RSA, I wonder how many people would be more critical of what was being said. It’s a form of sleight-of-hand.

  14. He takes points of data and makes a beautiful constellation, but in the end most of the connections are in his imagination. Hell, some of the stars are actually helicopters or satellites.

    Wristwatches? Classrooms? BOOT TIME? Sit down family dinners?

  15. I thought this was thought provoking. This is just a short introduction to the ideas. Now I want to find out more about his claims, and the research that backs them up.

    I think the RSA presentation is fantastic. It grabbed my attention, and stimulates questions. Gives you a rapid overview, and a place to start. I’m looking forward to watching some more.

  16. Very nice animation.

    A few words of caution: Zimbardo often portrays his opinions as established fact, and where there is correlational research, he will insert the causality of his choosing. Watch this with the understanding that it is what Philip Zimbardo believes, not what psychologists as a group know. Many researchers disagree.

    Case in point: He implies that technology rots your brain, especially if you are a kid. There is not any solid research at all to support that notion, as was linked on Boing Boing just shortly before. As has been pointed out, the phrase “it rewires your brain!” is meaningless, as every experience rewires our brain.

  17. @15 and many others

    Beautiful whiteboard animation, eloquently delivered lecture such that it seems convincing. But anybody over 35 and with a graduate degree requiring advanced statistics (or maybe even not that but a well trained analytic mind on their shoulders) would surely be screaming,
    “SOURCE! SOURCE!” and a little later on, “I SAID SOURCE MOTHERF*CKER!”.

    As much of an anti-papist (you know that whole homophobia, misogyny thing) as I am, his comparisons between protestant vs. catholic countries had me very squirmy.

    And the Stanford Prison experiment, what better example of the addage, “Does the ends justify the means?”

  18. What scares me about this is how Philip Zimbardo is taking others’ work and deriving ethical conclusions from it. If people experience time in different ways… why should we change anything? If technology is changing people’s behaviour, why do anything about that?

    There may be an answer, but it’s a fairly big one.

    A few of his conclusions sort of scare me, especially when it comes to propagandizing… why not question the entire educational system not just how it functions… look at the big picture for a minute and don’t do a disservice to political science or ethics in the process.

    You may fix the worlds problems, or you may create many more than are much much worse.

  19. Liked the ideas and animation, made a lot of things click together.

    Re: The Stanford Prison Experiment

    Working in the theater in college in the late 1960s, we did a production of “The Brig” with student actors and a freshly minted Yale Drama grad as director. Sometimes the magic works, and in that case the results were pretty horrific and left some lasting emotional scars on the entire production crew. It was a great piece of theater.

    Ref: The Brig, 1963 The Living Theater, NYC (written by a former Marine brig prisoner who served 30 days)

    Every time I think about the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp I shudder because of that play. Prison is a sharp blade that cuts both ways hurting the guards as well as the guarded. Anyone who thinks that the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment were bullshit doesn’t know what they’re talking about. . . imo

    1. Anyone who thinks that the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment were bullshit doesn’t know what they’re talking about. . . imo

      I fully believe the SPE showed how terrible people can be to one another. Here is why I think Zimbardo’s execution of it was, ahem, in your words, “bullshit.”

      1. During the SPE, he styled himself the “prison warden” and actively encouraged the guards to de-humanize the prisoners. His interpretation is that the “roles” made the prisoners abuse the guards – but he does not address that he was essentially ordering the guards to mistreat the prisoners. All this shows is that people can follow orders to do terrible things — not new knowledge, and not informative about roles alone. Milgram had already demonstrated this in a lab setting very clearly.

      2. He never released his SPE data – no one can see if his story of events is actually true.

      3. He never published his SPE findings in a peer-reviewed journal – again, no one can validate his findings.

      4. If you want to see an alternative explanation of the processes behind abuses at the SPE, watch the BBC’s mini-series The Experiment.

      Full disclosure: I worked in post-production on the BBC’s The Experiment and work with one of the psychologists who designed it.

      1. When an experiment ends early for safety consideration, do they often publish the incomplete results? Hard to find a peer-reviewed journal to publish incomplete work, but the BBC did thought it complete enough to exploit Professor Philip Zimbardo work for their own purposes. Bravo!

  20. It’s certainly something interesting to think about, and he’s definitely correct in saying that kids with different learning styles often get treated as dumb or lazy when they are neither. But to be honest, this time-orientation thing just reminds me of D&D alignments, and it seems about as helpful.

  21. I found this to be interesting.
    Folks seem to forget that it is a ten minute summary. Not everything was in the video here.
    Some dispute his facts/opinions, I know nothing of this man, to me it sounds like he has at least taken the time to study and gather data.
    Now the proof is in the pudding, are his findings published?
    I would have to go a little deeper than this summary.

  22. agree with #15 et al.
    Gobbledegook on Protestant/Catholic countries’ productivity [at 2:03] is gobbledegook.

    Gee, and how does he explain the productivity of these other countries: Japan (Shinto/Buddhist), China (Taoist/Buddhist/Catholic), India (Hindu/Muslim)?

    Also, as an athiest, I was a little personally annoyed that [at 1:26] he actually professes that to be “Future Oriented” you have to believe that “life begins after the death of the mortal body.” Is this type of “future orientation” a socially productive concept? (Suicide bombers are fairly future-oriented, but I guess they take it too far?)

    the North Italy/South Italy generalization: shudder.

    Saying child playing video games = “unschoolable” child: shudder.

    LOL @ 8:03 when he finds it disturbing kids dont wear wristwatches. (Checking the time using your cellphone is somehow nefarious?) I think he just cant stand innovation by children. He might as well just have also said “And, the music they play nowadays, its too loud!”

    LOL @ 8:30, if you wait a long time for your computer to boot up, and get angry, the problem is YOU and not your PC? (Gee, that certainly would be Microsoft’s argument.) But isn’t a PC that takes a long time to reboot like those “Southern Italians” in that the PC is not being “Future Oriented” enough– or am i getting his gobbledegook wrong?

    1. I don’t think he’s directly saying that gamers are unschoolable, but rather that schools are set up wrong to teach them. With a more interactive class they would do a lot better since they’re being engaged.

      And he is saying that being focussed on the afterlife is one of the two types of future orientation, the secular type is the more important and socially useful. Both future oriented types give up present pleasure for future benefit, it’s just secular future orienteds actually get what they want while the religious don’t.

  23. Thank God it’s Saturday. I don’t have the time for ten minute videos during the workweek.

  24. When an experiment ends early for safety consideration, do they often publish the incomplete results? Hard to find a peer-reviewed journal to publish incomplete work,

    Many journals would have been very eager to publish these results, if the results had merit behind them. The study’s completion date was totally arbitrary – there were still several days’ worth of data. Zimbardo has not released his data so we will never know what actually happened. A more pertinent question is, is it typical to base a career on data hyped to popular media, but that remains unshared with scientific peers?

    but the BBC did thought it complete enough to exploit Professor Philip Zimbardo work for their own purposes. Bravo!

    Maybe you don’t fully understand how science and research work. Real scientists don’t get to keep a theory or research area all to themselves, disallowing others from asking big questions and conducting the studies — science requires others to test and validate findings, with a critical eye. This mechanism is what makes science into science. Anything less is sophistry.

    @Stevew Thanks, I’ll have to check out The Brig. I was not familiar with it, so thanks for sharing.

  25. Half the readers here sound like they were expecting a peer-reviewed, thoroughly referenced monograph; it must have been confusing to watch a funny 10 minute video that was obviously meant to be a teaser. His data points are thought-provoking (as was the prison experiment, but I hope his research techniques have improved a lot since then!). You can disagree with his conclusions and still do some good thinking in response; isn’t that worth something?

    And he’s not a cranky old man; more the opposite; he acknowledges that kids aren’t getting stupider, but they have a different perspective, and our institutions aren’t accommodating it well. And since traditionalists want to fix the situation by making education more boring (while it also gets defunded), its nice to hear some different ideas.

    1. I’m with humanresource/#36. This was a nice thought-provoking lecture, and obviously gorgeously animated. And maybe the animation influenced this impression, but I found it all really playful, just some ideas presented for consideration. And I hardly noticed the “kids today!” angle that defined the lecture for so many of the above commenters.

      But I still think that with efforts to categorize all humanity such as this, Woody Allen has them all beat with his observation that there’s two types of people in the world: those think there’s two types of people in the world, and those who don’t.

  26. reading some of the angst riddled comments here makes one wonder how anyone can talk about anything anymore without 17 volumns of how everything in history relates to one freaking concept

  27. of all the sketchy things he says, the one that jumped out at me was the part where he says by 21, most kids today have played 10,000 hours of video games.

    Ok, that I can buy, certainly. But his next sentence is something like, “…and probably more watching pornography”

    WTF? where did that come from? For that to be true, it would mean that kids disappear for hours on end (since parents can’t see them viewing the porn obviously) and they’d have to have enough leisure time to commit to both video games and porn, as well as sports, homework, being in school, etc.

    Of all the things in the video, that sounded like the most pulled out of his ass.

  28. Wow. Besides all the methodological flaws:
    How did he manage to avoid talking about economic factors in this?

    “Time influences who we are as a person, how we view relationships and how we act in the world.”
    I would love to see him discuss this idea with anyone who actually struggles to make a living.
    Single-parents, underpaid high-school teachers, factory workers, (illegal) immigrants, farmers, freelancers…

  29. Regardless of Zimbardo’s opinion, I agree that whatever we’re going to teach (including the 3 R’s) for many students interactivity and a sense of agency make the content more immersive and easier to learn.

    I can prove it, too — of all the middle-class American under-35s in this thread, what history lesson from elementary school best stuck with you? Ten-to-one it was playing “The Oregon Trail” Even in a generation that played fewer games overall.

    Now the software needs to be well-designed. So much educational software just throws paper exercises on the screen. It should encourage experimentation, answer preposterous questions correctly. Kids can learn more, faster, if given the chance to seek the limits. The quicker kids will get less bored and will have more fun playing around, while the slower kids can still get help.

  30. I just watched the whole lecture, and there is quite a lot of the, “What’s wrong with kids today” vibe. Also, I’ve always been annoyed by the kind of hire-these-people psychology books that he’s peddling here.

    His dream that this of vague pop-psychology is going to cure PTSD is self-delusional.

    Also, RAH-RAH USA! USA! the place where future-oriented bankers were magically transformed through demon hypnosis into present-hedonists only interested in a quick buck.

    You know, that last paragraph looks ridiculous, but I think it might just boil down the essence of 40 minutes of him talking.

    Exempt for his advice on living life: only remember the good things in your past, have a little fun but not too much, but above all work hard and plan for the future! I’m sure no one has said that before.

  31. Wow, I thought my opinion of Phil Zimbardo couldn’t drop lower, and yet it did in just 10 minutes.

    Vague generalities, applying causation to correlation or speculation, ignoring quantitative data for qualitative data, mis-applying study information to prove a theory while ignoring entire bodies of peer reviewed data, and on and on.

    Even after I tossed out the obviously classist and racist notions of Zimbardo, which clearly color his own interpretation of his self-selected and largely qualitative suppositions, I thought he did a good job of showing why you don’t let failed professors make public policy.

  32. The passivity reflected here is astounding! If it’s “progress,” it’s inexorable, in whatever form it hits us — regardless of what we might see as fundamental destruction of some things we think we value, AND regardless of who’s directing our consumption of technology. Resistance is not only futile, it’s stupid.

    His generalizations, though intriguing, are indeed sweeping and not entirely defensible. And although he implies that a lack of future-orientation explains poverty while future-orientation evolves wealth, he still avoids any discussion of why the gulf beteen rich and poor is widening.

    But the worst of it is that he’s swept up in the cleverness with which he connects the dots without seeing that he stops short of connecting the last set of them: that “we” — like the young men and women he sees in crisis because they aren’t future-oriented enough to modify behavior — have become utterly passive and accepting of all effects of consumerism/technology as is, just because it’s “progress.” It’s technology, it’s here, it’s great; and saying we should using it any other way than how it’s marketed is just foolish heresy.

    This is more conservative than even conservatives would themselves admit.

  33. He is a witty guy and knows how to attract mass attention to himself. But think, most people belong to all three categories even in the course of one day: in the morning they live in the ‘future,’ during the day – in the ‘present,’ and at night – in the ‘past.’

    If you do not like ‘generalizations’ read “Fleeing from absence” book with like dozens of interpretations and for those with a short attention span every chapter like a half a page with a lot of illustrations.

    It’s a very interesting fact that Sicilian dialect does not have the future tense. But it’s not absolutely correct. From Wiki (

    “The Simple Future tense in Sicilian is no longer in use. However the Sicilian language employs several possible methods of expressing the future tense:
    1) by simply using the present indicative, usually preceded by an adverb of time:
    Stasira vaiu ô tiatru — This evening I [will] go to the theatre.
    Dumani ti scrivu — Tomorrow I [will] write to you.”

  34. Thank you, Bungle, for pointing out that in ‘the Stanford Prison Experiment … the lead prison guard had apparently suffered at the hands of a real prison guard in a real prison for 15 years’. I did not know that.

    A note to Avon who said it’s not possible to run background check on everyone:

    But they claim they are professional certified psychologists! If so, after a short conversation they have to have some idea that something’s wrong with the guy! How come they could not recognize the impact of 15 years in prison?!

  35. It appears the site for his book got boingboing’ed (or is it just boing’ed?), so I tried the short test on usatoday’s site and it pretty much told me what I knew. I recently accepted that I have add and I’m addicted to TED/pop-sci psyk, so I’m aware of a lot of these.. concepts/ideas. Zimbardo et al. are just expressing them in a new (and I think) interesting/possible useful ways.
    It’s interesting to look at the comments here vs. the comments on usatoday. They are pretty much all negative.
    On usatoday it seems to be because they don’t understand how to interpret the results (“The results are contradictory”), not realizing that the world is not black & white.
    Here it seems to be either because of Zimbardo’s past “crimes” vis á vis The Stanford Prison experiment (which I only have a passing knowledge of, but it does seem as though you fall into the Past Negative category, ha-ha) or because it’s too vague/self-aggrandizing/have flaws, which just is silly. No one, but no one have the Answer, all we can do is listen to each other & try to make things better.
    The real problem with this & all these other marvelous ideas that are floating around (like The Talent Code & others), is how to implement/test all these interesting ideas? We (well, perhaps mostly those of us who’re dropouts) are not really in control of our life, too much takes place in the subconscious, so we need some kind of structure to put these ideas into place. To externalize our subconscious if you will. I guess that’s what society is, a way to encourage certain behaviors. It would just be nice to be aware/have more influence over these regulators.. but who has the time?

  36. Maybe because it can’t possibly be true. The “lead prison guard,” like the other “prison guards,” was a Stanford student. At age 20 or so, it seems a tad unlikely he had been abused in prison for 15 years.

  37. The introductory comments regarding time perception from temperate to equatorial regions is quite evident from casual observation. Having matured in north temperate and lived in equatorial East Africa, I can atest to the (frustrating) cultural difference.
    During the African tenure, a number of locals asked why the advancement disparity. I asked back how many months of the year could they not grow food, about 3 months 2x per year. I then asked if they could survive without for 7-9 months as I experienced. This was considered an impossibility although we learned it naturally. These features are reinforced in ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ by Jared Diamond.
    Diamond also notes that man has been genetically modifying food (GMF) as he migrated away from the tropics. We use foods historically selected from the largest grain heads and most disease resistant plants. Industrialized man has just sped up the process through biochemistry due to ability to have study time through the use of cheap energy for essential living.
    The rise in quality of life is preceded by an exponential increase in using cheap, high density sourced energy. The yearly sweat of the brow man energy is roughly equivalent to the energy in a barrel of petroleum. Without this, we return to subsistence and no future time to enjoy the fruits of labor.
    The further development of the thesis about how to make learning for successful life is a new challenge for the creativity of the leisure man to keep what we have attained going.

  38. Wow, that was very insightful. I have lived in the Phillipines and Hawaii as well as stateside. There is a clear difference in the way people see accomplishments. In the Phillipines, someone would say ” Today, I have to go to the bank.” and their friends would say ” Take it easy, go to the bank tomorrow!”

  39. Holy Crapp!! Talk about putting things into perspective all in the space of 10mins. I think I’ll leave work and go home now. Thank you, I think.

  40. Very interesting but the presentation stopped with about 7 minutes to go.
    Is that a message for me?

  41. Wow this would explain why my temper is a lot worse than it used to be and why I am still not successful

  42. For me, the takeaway from this video has far less to do with the points Zimbardo makes in his talk – which from the comments thus far are both thought provoking and clearly very debatable – than in the remarkable manner in which the verbal ideas are presented in concert with the accompanying animation. This would be just another sociology lecture without the impact of the well-orchestrated, witty and concise animated drawings and captions accompanying the lecture. If this animation technique were applied to a lecture on calculus, or gene splicing, or recycling technologies, I’d come away with a much clearer appreciation of these subjects. (Full disclosure: I am not affiliated IN ANY WAY with – this video has, however, made me a fan of their work!)

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