Drawn Into the Future or Driven by the Past

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Drawn Into the Future or Driven by the Past

Martin Seligman

University of Pennsylvania

Peter Railton

University of Michigan

Roy Baumeister

Florida State University


Chandra Sripada

University of Michigan


Prospection (Buckner and Carroll, 2007), the internal representation of possible futures is a ubiquitous feature of the human mind, with roots going back into our animal ancestry. Much psychological theory and practice, however, has proceeded in a framework that understands human action as determined by the past, while viewing any sort of teleology as mysterious and metaphysical. Understood as prospection, teleology is neither mysterious nor metaphysical--it simply is guidance by one’s internal, evaluative representations of possible future states. We call this phenomenon being drawn into the future. These unmysterious representations can in turn be understood as evaluative “If X, then Y” conditionals, and the process of prospection can be understood as the imaginative simulation of the possibilities encoded in these conditionals. We review the failures of behaviorism and psychoanalysis to account adequately for action as driven by the past, and we suggest that prospection is the crucial missing piece. Intriguingly, a priori considerations, too, point to the centrality of “If X, then Y expectations in systems that learn from experience and regulate their behavior accordingly. We speculate that prospection may illuminate the function of consciousness and the role of subjectivity in consciousness. Speculating further, we suggest that prospecting provides a way of thinking about what is “free” and “willing” in “free will.” Finally, we consider how clinical practice might benefit by considering pathologies of prospection and from a shift in attention from past history toward being drawn into the future.

William James famously wrote, “My thinking is first and last and always for my doing” (James, 1890, I: 333). He might have added: “… and all my doing is in the future”. Even the simplest act, a slight movement of the eye tracking a moving object, say, extends forward, never backward, in time. And this movement will be more successful and more efficient if it accurately anticipates in the here and now what will happen in the then and there. Efficiency considerations alone, not to mention competitive pressures, mean that natural selection will have relentlessly favored organisms that do better at anticipation.

Thinking designed for doing thus will be thinking designed for reliable prospection into the future. And ‘thinking’ here must incorporate evaluation as well as description. A good prospector must know more than the physical landscape—what is to be found where, with what probability—but also at what cost in effort and risk, and with what possible gain. The prospecting organism similarly must construct an evaluative landscape of possible acts and outcomes. The organism then acts through this evaluative representation, guided by the attractive or aversive prospects it holds. And the success or failure of an act in living up to its prospect will lead not simply to satisfaction or frustration, but to maintaining or revising the evaluative representation that will guide the next act.

At any given moment, improving our chances for survival and reproduction lies entirely in the future, so learning and memory, though grounded in the past, had better contribute to successful prospection. Memory, for example, should be useable memory, encoding information in ways that facilitate the simulation of new possibilities And learning should not be simple acquisition of past facts awaiting some use, or the entrenchment of previously successful habits—at its heart it must be about forward expectation.

To see intelligent animals as drawn into the future is not to deny that the past influences the present and future, but it is to reject a pervasive and seemingly natural picture of how the influence of the past is transmitted. In this picture, past history, present circumstance, and inner states drive behavior, much as, in a classical dynamical system, the vector sum of forces operating upon and within a particle uniquely determine its subsequent trajectory. Intelligent animals, in contrast, use the past, it does not use them. The influence of the past is thus not the impulsion of cue-ball-like forces. Rather the influence is routed via the animal’s representation of possible futures, i.e., present representations of absent acts and outcomes. Intelligent billiard balls would have “a mind of their own”, and simple cue-strokes would not suffice to determine their trajectories—we would have to know how the world, and especially possible future acts and outcomes, look to them. Animals and humans are at least this intelligent.

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