How far away does the past year feel to you? How close does the next year feel to you?

Your thoughts, feelings, and actions change over time. Who you were five years ago may differ from who you are today and from who you will be in five years. But do you feel you are still the same person? This question is at the core of self-continuity, which is the perception that we are the same person over time.

The degree to which we focus on the past and future is not as concrete as we might think, as surrealist painter Salvador Dali depicted in one of his most famous paintings, The Persistence of Memory. Our research shows that culture influences our perception of time, which in turn affects our perceptions of our own self-continuity over time.

In our research, Euro-Canadian and Chinese participants differed in how much they thought and felt about the past and future. Both past and future events felt closer to the present for the Chinese participants than for the Euro-Canadians, even when the objective temporal distance was the same, such as 12 months ago or 12 months in the future.

In another study, participants were given cue words (such as “window”) and asked to generate associations with each cue word by reporting a personal event that either had happened in the past or will likely happen in the future. For example, in response to the cue word “window,” a person might say, “I helped an elderly neighbor clean her windows.” Then, participants indicated when the event occurred in the past or would be most likely to occur in the future. Chinese participants spontaneously came up with events that were further in the past and in the future. These findings suggest that Chinese people pay greater attention to the past and future, viewing the past, present, and future as being more interconnected and closer to one another.  As a result, personal information further in the past and future is more accessible to them so they think about it more often.

Paying attention to the past and future has important implications, one of which is self-continuity.  If you perceive your past and future as closer to the present, you will be more likely to perceive your past, present, and future selves as more similar.  That is exactly what we have found. Due to their broader temporal focus—their tendency to attend to the past and future—Chinese participants reported a higher sense of self-continuity over time than Euro-Canadians did.

The broader temporal focus by the Chinese may also make them less susceptible to focalism, which is people’s tendency to focus too much attention on a central event and ignore the impact of other, less salient events. Focalism has been used to explain biases in affective forecasting.  Most people predict that a positive event, such as winning a lottery, will make them feel happier than is really the case. Conversely, most people predict that a negative event, such as breaking up with a significant other, will make them feel unhappier than is really the case. However, research has revealed that Chinese participants do not show this bias in forecasting future emotions, due to their weaker focus on the focal event.

Temporal focus also seems to influence financial decisions. In making stock market predictions and investment decisions, people usually gather information about how a stock has performed in the past. People with a broader temporal focus are more likely to look at the long-term performance. In contrast, those with a narrower temporal focus tend to use the most recent, immediate information when making their decision. Our research shows these differences between Chinese nationals and North Americans in their decisions to sell or buy stocks in response to hypothetical stock trends. Euro-Americans and Euro-Canadians tend to take the latest information as the best indicator of a stock’s future trend, whereas Chinese investors are more inclined to consider the long-term trend. Of course, if the future feels close, this may also motivate people to save money for the future. This may help to explain why rates of saving money are much higher in China than in Canada or the United States.

Furthermore, the closer the future feels to the present, and the more continuous the self feels over time, the less likely people should be to prefer immediate rewards or discount future rewards, such as preferring to receive $100 today over receiving $110 in a year. This speculation is consistent with research showing that East Asians (Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese) have a lower discounting rate for the future than Americans.

Cultural differences in temporal connectedness may also affect aspects of social interactions. If you think more about the past and future, then past interactions and expected future interactions will have a bigger impact on your current behaviors and decisions. Indeed, we found that Chinese individuals are more likely than Euro-Canadians to see continuity from their grandparents and parents to themselves, and then to their children and grandchildren.

Although the studies described here were based on comparisons between Chinese and Euro-Canadians, the results do not seem to be limited to Euro-Canadian vs. Chinese comparisons. Another project currently underway shows that Koreans show high self-continuity, very much the way people do in China.  

Regardless of one’s cultural background, it’s important to appreciate how past and future events can influence our perceptions of ourselves. Only then can we live fully in the present.  

For Future Reading

Ji, L.J, Hong, E., Guo, T., Zhang, Z., Su, Y., & Li, Y. (2019).  Culture, psychological proximity to the past and future, and self-continuity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 49 (4), 735747. 

Ji, L.J., Zhang, Z., & Guo, T. (2008) To buy or to sell: Cultural differences in stock market decisions based on stock price trends. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 21(4), 399-413.

Lam, K. C. H., Buehler, R., McFarland, C., Ross, M., & Cheung, I. (2005). Cultural Differences in Affective Forecasting: The Role of Focalism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin31(9), 1296–1309.

Li-Jun Ji is a professor of social psychology at Queen’s University in Canada. She studies culture, cognition, and decision-making.