Experimental Work

on Time Biases

Are We Future-Biased about Non-Hedonic Events? What About Events Happening to Third Parties? 

It has widely been assumed, by philosophers, that our first-person preferences regarding pleasurable and painful experiences exhibit a bias toward the future (positive and negative hedonic future-bias), and that our preferences regarding non-hedonic events (both positive and negative) exhibit no such bias (non-hedonic time-neutrality). Further, it has been assumed that our third-person preferences are always time-neutral. Some have attempted to use these (presumed) differential patterns of future-bias—different across kinds of events and perspectives—to argue for the irrationality of hedonic future-bias. This paper experimentally tests these descriptive hypotheses. While as predicted we found first-person hedonic future-bias, we did not find that participants were time-neutral in all other conditions. Hence, the presumed asymmetry of hedonic/non-hedonic and first/third-person preferences cannot be used to argue for the irrationality of future-bias, since no such asymmetries exist. Instead, we develop a more fine-grained approach, according to which three factors—positive/negative valence, first/third-person, and hedonic/non-hedonic—each independently influence, but do not determine, whether an event is treated in a future-biased or time-neutral way. We discuss the upshots of these results for the debate over the rationality of future-bias.

Greene, P., Latham, A. J., Miller, K., and Norton, J (2020) “Hedonic and non-hedonic bias towards the future”. The Australasian Journal of Philosophy. https://doi.org/10.1080/00048402.2019.1703017 


We hear a lot about future-bias, but there are conditions under which we are past-biased. 

Many philosophers have assumed that our preferences regarding hedonic events exhibit a bias toward the future: we prefer positive experiences to be in our future and negative experiences to be in our past. Recent experimental work by Greene et al. (ms) confirmed this assumption. However, they noted a potential for some participants to respond in a deviant manner, and hence for their methodology to underestimate the percentage of people who are time neutral, and overestimate the percentage who are future biased. We aimed to replicate their study using an alternative methodology that ensures there are no such deviant responses, and hence more accurately tracks future bias and time neutrality. Instead of finding more time neutrality than Greene et al., however, we found vastly more past bias. Our explanation for this surprising finding helps to reveal the rationale behind both future and past biased preferences, and undermines the generalisability of one of the most influential motivations for the rationality of hedonic future bias: Parfit’s My Past or Future Operations.

Greene, P, Latham, A. J. Miller, K., and J Norton (forthcoming). “Why are People So Darn Past-Biased?”. In Temporal Asymmetries in Philosophy and Psychology. Edited by C Hoerl, T McCormack, and A Fernandes. OUP. 


What Explains Future Bias?

Philosophers have long noted, and empirical psychology has lately confirmed, that most people are ‘biased toward the future’: we prefer to have positive experiences in the future, and negative experiences in the past. At least two explanations have been offered for this bias: (i) belief in temporal passage (or related theses in temporal metaphysics) and (ii) the practical irrelevance of the past resulting from our inability to influence past events. We set out to test the latter explanation. In a large survey (n = 1462) we find that participants exhibit significantly less future bias when asked to consider scenarios where they can affect their own past experiences. This supports the ‘practical irrelevance’ explanation of future bias. It also suggests that future bias is not an inflexible preference hardwired by evolution, but results from a more general disposition to ‘accept the things we cannot change’. However, participants still exhibited substantial future bias in scenarios in which they could affect the past, leaving room for complementary explanations. Beyond the main finding, our results also indicate that future bias is stake-sensitive(i.e., that at least some people discount past experience rather than disregarding it entirely) and that participants endorse the normative correctness of their future-biased preferences and choices. In combination, these results shed light on philosophical debates over the rationality of future bias, suggesting that it may be a rational (reasons-responsive) response to empirical realities rather than a brute, arational disposition.

Latham, A. J., Miller, K, J. Norton, J. and Tarsney, C. (forthcoming) “Future Bias in Action” Synthese.