Is the Future More Valuable than the Past?

Alison Fernandes — Post-Doctoral Fellow on the AHRC pro­ject ‘Time: Between Metaphysics and Psychology’, Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick


We dif­fer markedly in our atti­tudes towards the future and past. We look for­ward in anti­cip­a­tion to tonight’s tasty meal or next month’s sunny hol­i­day. While we might fondly remem­ber these pleas­ant exper­i­ences, we don’t hap­pily anti­cip­ate them once they’re over. Conversely, while we might dread the meet­ing tomor­row, or doing this year’s taxes, we feel a dis­tinct sort of relief when they’re done. We seem to also prefer pleas­ant exper­i­ences to be in the future, and unpleas­ant exper­i­ences to be in the past. While we can’t swap tomorrow’s meet­ing and make it have happened yes­ter­day, we might prefer that it had happened yes­ter­day and was over and done with.

Asymmetries like these in how we care about the past and future can seem to make a lot of sense. After all, what’s done is done, and can’t be changed. Surely we’re right to focus our care, effort and atten­tion on what’s to come. But do we some­times go too far in valu­ing past and future events dif­fer­ently? In this post I’ll con­sider one par­tic­u­lar tem­por­al asym­metry of value that doesn’t look so ration­al, and how its appar­ent irra­tion­al­ity speaks against cer­tain meta­phys­ic­al ways of explain­ing the asymmetry.

Eugene Caruso, Daniel Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson, invest­ig­ated a tem­por­al asym­metry in how we value past and future events (2008). Suppose that I ask you how much com­pens­a­tion would be fair to receive for under­tak­ing 5 hours of data entry work. The answer that you give seems to depend cru­cially on when the work is described as tak­ing place. Subjects judged that they should receive 101% more money if the work is described as tak­ing place one month in the future ($125.04 USD on aver­age), com­pared to one month in the past ($62.20 USD on aver­age). Even for purely hypo­thet­ic­al scen­ari­os, where no one actu­ally expects the work to take place, we judge future work to be worth much more than past work.

This value asym­metry appears in oth­er scen­ari­os as well (Caruso et al., 2008). Say your friend is let­ting you bor­row their vaca­tion home for a week. How expens­ive a bottle of wine do you buy as a thank you gift? If the hol­i­day is described as tak­ing place in the future, sub­jects select wine that is 37% more expens­ive. Suppose that you help your neigh­bour move. What would be an appro­pri­ate thank you gift for you to receive? Subjects judge they should receive 71% more expens­ive bottles of wine for help­ing in the future, com­pared to the past. Say you’re award­ing dam­ages for the suf­fer­ing of an acci­dent vic­tim. Subjects judge that vic­tims should be awar­ded 42% more com­pens­a­tion when they ima­gine their suf­fer­ing as tak­ing place in the future, com­pared to the past.

Philosophers like Craig Callender (2017) have become increas­ingly inter­ested in the value asym­metry stud­ied by Caruso and his col­leagues. This is partly because there has been a long his­tory of using asym­met­ries in how we care about past and future events to argue for par­tic­u­lar meta­phys­ic­al views about time (Prior, 1959). For example, say you hold a ‘grow­ing block’ view of time, accord­ing to which the present and past exist (and are there­fore ‘fixed’) while future events are not yet real (so the future is unsettled and ‘open’). One might argue that a meta­phys­ic­al pic­ture with an open future like this is needed to make sense of why we care about future events more than past events. If past events are fixed, they’re not worth spend­ing our time over—so we value them less. But because future events are up for grabs, we reas­on­ably place great­er value in them in the present.

Can one argue from the value asym­metry Caruso and his team stud­ied, to a meta­phys­ic­al view about time? Much depends on what fea­tures the asym­metry has, and how these might be explained. When it comes to explain­ing the tem­por­al value asym­metry, Caruso and his team dis­covered that it is closely aligned to anoth­er asym­metry: a tem­por­al emo­tion­al asym­metry. More spe­cific­ally, we tend to feel stronger emo­tions when con­tem­plat­ing future events, com­pared to con­tem­plat­ing past events.

These asym­met­ries are cor­rel­ated in such a way as to sug­gest the emo­tion­al asym­metry is a cause of the value asym­metry. Part of the evid­ence comes from the fact that the emo­tion­al and value asym­metry share oth­er fea­tures in com­mon. For example, we tend to feel stronger emo­tions when con­tem­plat­ing our own mis­for­tunes, or those of oth­ers close to us, than we do con­tem­plat­ing the mis­for­tune of strangers. The value asym­metry shares this fea­ture. It is also much more strongly pro­nounced for events that con­cern one­self, com­pared to oth­ers. Subjects judge their own 5 hours of data entry work to be worth nearly twice as much money when it takes place in the future, com­pared to the past. But they judge the equi­val­ent work of a stranger to be worth sim­il­ar amounts of money, inde­pend­ently of wheth­er the work is described as tak­ing place in the future or in the past.

The same fea­tures that point towards an emo­tion­al explan­a­tion of the value asym­metry also point away from a meta­phys­ic­al explan­a­tion. The value asym­metry is, in a cer­tain sense, ‘perspectival’—it is strongest con­cern­ing one­self. But if meta­phys­ic­al facts were to explain why future events were more valu­able than past ones, it would make little sense for the asym­metry to be per­spectiv­al. After all, on meta­phys­ic­al views of time like the grow­ing block view, events are either future or not. If future events being ‘open’ is to explain why we value them more, the asym­metry in value shouldn’t depend on wheth­er they con­cern one­self or oth­ers. Future events are not only open when they con­cern me – they are also open when they con­cern you. So the meta­phys­ic­al explan­a­tion of the value asym­metry does not look promising.

If we instead explain the value asym­metry by appeal to an emo­tion­al asym­metry, we can also trace the value asym­metry back to fur­ther asym­met­ries. Philosophers and psy­cho­lo­gists have giv­en evol­u­tion­ary explan­a­tions of why we feel stronger emo­tions towards future events than past events (Maclaurin & Dyke, 2002; van Boven & Ashworth, 2007). Emotions help focus our ener­gies and atten­tion. If we gen­er­ally need to align our efforts and atten­tion towards the future (which we can con­trol) rather than being overly con­cerned with the past (which we can’t do any­thing about), then it makes sense that we’re geared to feel stronger emo­tions when con­tem­plat­ing future events than past ones. Note that this evol­u­tion­ary explan­a­tion requires that our emo­tion­al responses to future and past events ‘overgen­er­al­ise’. Even when we’re asked about future events we can’t con­trol, or purely hypo­thet­ic­al future events, we still feel more strongly about them than com­par­at­ive past events, because feel­ing more strongly about the future in gen­er­al is so use­ful when the future events are ones that we can control.

A final nail in the coffin for a meta­phys­ic­al explan­a­tion of the value asym­metry comes from think­ing about wheth­er sub­jects take the value asym­metry to be ration­al. I began with some examples of asym­met­ries that do seem ration­al. It seems ration­al to prefer past pains to future ones, and to feel relief when unpleas­ant exper­i­ences are over. Whether asym­met­ries like these are in fact ration­al is a top­ic of con­tro­versy in philo­sophy (Sullivan, forth.; Dougherty, 2015). Regardless, there is strong evid­ence that the value asym­metry that Caruso stud­ied is taken to be irra­tion­al, even by sub­jects whose judge­ments dis­play the asymmetry.

The meth­od­o­logy Caruso used involved ‘coun­ter­bal­an­cing’: some sub­jects were asked about the future event first, some were asked about the past event first. When the res­ults with­in any single group were con­sidered, no value asym­metry was found. That is, when you ask a single per­son how they value an event (say, using a friend’s vaca­tion home for a week) they think its value now shouldn’t depend on wheth­er the event is in the past or future. It is only when you com­pare res­ults across the two groups that the asym­metry emerges (see Table 1). It’s as if we apply a con­sist­ency judge­ment and think that future and past events should be worth the same. But when we can’t make the com­par­is­on, we value them dif­fer­ently. This strongly sug­gests that the asym­metry is not being driv­en by a con­scious judge­ment that the future is really is worth more than the past, or by a meta­phys­ic­al pic­ture accord­ing to which it is. If it were, we would expect the asym­metry to be more pro­nounced when sub­jects were asked about both the past and the future. Instead, the asym­metry disappears.


Order of evaluation
Use of a friend’s vaca­tion home Past event first Future event first
Past $89. 17 $129.06
Future $91.73 $121.98

Table 1: Average amount of money (USD) that sub­jects judge they would spend on a thank you gift for using a friend’s vaca­tion home in the past or future (Caruso et al., 2008). 


Investigations into how tem­por­al asym­met­ries in value arise are allow­ing philo­soph­ers and psy­cho­lo­gists to build up a much more detailed pic­ture of how we think about time. It can seem intu­it­ive to think of the past as fixed, and the future as open. Such intu­itions have long been used to sup­port cer­tain meta­phys­ic­al views about time. But, while meta­phys­ic­al views might seem to ration­al­ise asym­met­ries in our atti­tudes, their actu­al explan­a­tion seems to lie else­where, in much deep­er evolution-driven responses. We may even be adopt­ing meta­phys­ic­al views as ration­al­isers of our much more basic emo­tion­al responses. If this is right, the value asym­metry not only provides a case study of how we can get by explain­ing asym­met­ric fea­tures of our exper­i­ence without appeal to meta­phys­ics. It sug­gests that psy­cho­logy can help explain why we’re so temp­ted towards cer­tain meta­phys­ic­al views in the first place.



Callender, Craig. 2017. What Makes Time Special. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Caruso, Eugene M. Gilbert, D. T., and Wilson, T. D. 2008. A wrinkle in time: Asymmetric valu­ation of past and future events. Psychological Science 19(8): 796–801.

Dougherty, Tom. 2015. Future-Bias and Practical Reason. Philosophers’ Imprint. 15(30): 1−16.

Maclaurin, James & Dyke, Heather. 2002. ‘Thank Goodness That’s Over’: The Evolutionary Story. Ratio 15 (3): 276–292.

Prior, Arthur. N. 1959. Thank Goodness That’s Over. Philosophy. 34(128): 12−17.

Sullivan, Meghan. forth. Time Biases: A Theory of Rational Planning and Personal Persistence. New York: Oxford University Press.

Van Boven, Leaf & Ashworth, Laurence. 2007. Looking Forward, Looking Back: Anticipation Is More Evocative Than Retrospection. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 136(2): 289–300.