Mental time travel and construal level associations: Functional past- and future-directed thinking

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The Ohio State University

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Mental time travel, the ability to mentally project one's self backward and forward in time, is thought to be crucial for goal attainment (Suddendorf & Corballis, 2007). Construal level theory suggests the way people think about temporally distant (relative to near) events is by engaging in greater cognitive abstraction (Trope & Liberman, 2003). Whether this process is the same for past vs. future events, however is unclear. We explore whether past and future processes rely on similar mechanisms (Buckner & Carroll, 2007). We also examine the functionality of these processes, suggesting that those who do not engage in abstraction to think about temporally distant events will have more difficulty attaining their goals. We explore whether difficulties for individuals with depression stem from employing dysfunctional cognitive tendencies with respect to thinking about the past and future (Strauman, 2002; Trivedi & Greer, 2014). Thus, this study aims to address two questions: 1) whether cognition is similar between thinking about the past and future, and 2) what constitutes functional cognition in mental time travel and how this relates to goal attainment and well-being. We recruited 251 participants from the Department of Psychology's Research Experience Program. We assess the tendency to use abstraction to think about past and future events using an Implicit Association Test (IAT; Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998). Participants also complete the Beck Depression Inventory to measure depressive severity and other well-being and goal attainment questionnaires (Beck, Ward, Mendelson, Mock, & Erbaugh, 1961). Data was analyzed utilizing D Score algorithm (Greenwald, Nosek, & Banaji, 2003) for IAT reaction times, and Process Dissociation Procedure (PDP; Jacoby, L.L. 1991) for error rates. As we predicted, we found non-significant differences between past and future versions of the IAT, suggesting people likely engage in similar abstraction processes when thinking about the past vs. future. Participants with more depressive symptoms, relative to those with fewer, did not show differences in association strengths on reaction time measures. Participants with more depressive symptoms, relative to fewer, did show weaker associations between distant time and abstraction on error rate measures; this may be due to this measurement's greater sensitivity for measuring associations. Overall, evidence suggests past and future rely on similar mechanisms, and although mixed, some evidence supports predictions about the functionality of abstract thinking with distant time.


First place award for Social Psychology category at Denman Undergraduate Research Forum


construal level theory, depression, mental time travel, temporal distance