My first big learning on how humans think of their future happened a few years ago while studying the lives of truck drivers. As part of developing a communication strategy for a company launching fuel stations across the country, I got one of my team members to spend a few days riding along with truck drivers across the country. While my colleague observed several facets of a truck driver’s life, he also observed the truck drivers’ interactions with commercial sex workers.
My colleague observed that although free condoms were available, many truck drivers did not use them. On further enquiry, he found that the truck drivers were aware of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS and that condoms could help prevent one from getting infected-or from transmitting the disease. But despite this awareness, many truckers didn’t use condoms. Why was this?
On deeper questioning, one of the truck drivers told my colleague, “Yes, I know condoms can prevent diseases like AIDS, a disease that can kill me few years down the line. But my life can end today with an accident at the next traffic junction. I have got too many problems to solve for today. In the midst of all this, I don’t have time to think of what will happen a few years down the line.” That is when I realized that there are many people around us who don’t think beyond a few days into the future.
For millions of years in our evolutionary history, humans lived for the day. Our forefathers ate what they had in front of them and slept in the safest place they could find that day. So, for millions of years, the human brain had got used to thinking only about today. The advent of agriculture brought in a fundamental change in human thinking. Humans started to think of tomorrow, the future. They started to believe that the seeds they planted that day would bear fruits in the future. For the first time in evolutionary history, our temporal orientation expanded beyond a single day into the future.
But the introduction of agriculture is a recent event in the evolutionary history of humans. Around 10,000 years of agriculture and its focus on the future is too small a period to make a significant impact in the wiring of the human brain which is millions of years old. The fundamental nature of the human brain is to think short term.
All of us have a temporal orientation that governs our lives. This time frame determines how far ahead in the future we can think while carrying outday-to-day activities. One’s temporal orientation, induced by evolutionary forces and external influences, impacts one’s daily behaviour at a non-conscious level. Because it is a non-conscious factor, the role of temporal orientation in human behaviour has rarely been taken seriously by policymakers and decision experts while formulating policy decisions.
The very existence of a politician is dependent on winning the next election. An election that happens every five years or earlier is a life and death situation for him. Losing an election could mean the death of his political life. So all his actions and thoughts are governed by winning the next election. Given this, it is very difficult for a politician to have a temporal orientation beyond five years.
Today, in the days of shareholder activism, corporate leaders too are subject to short-term temporal orientation. A few quarters of underperformance will surely make the position of any chief executive officer (CEO) very shaky. So the temporal orientation of most companies does not extend beyond the next few quarters. Thus, when there is a choice between an investment that will have a substantial future pay-off and a small immediate one, and an investment that will have a smaller pay-off, but an immediate one, one should not blame the CEO for playing a short-term game.
Of course, political leaders and corporate leaders will say that they are committed to the future and long-term goals. But their actions will nevertheless be governed by what their brains expect to happen in the immediate present, much like our forefathers in the savannas-a clear say versus do gap created due to their temporal orientation.
Several problems that a large country like India faces need long-term vision and decades of focused effort. The temporal orientation of the political leadership does not facilitate strategy formulation beyond five years. So how do we develop alternative strategies that work around the short-term temporal orientation problem?
It would be too optimistic to expect a politician to start thinking of a future beyond his next election, when his very survival depends on it. It might be more practical to accept this reality and work around this problem. Who could then take care of the long-term future of a country?
Some of the brightest talents in our country join the administrative services. They are part of the government machinery for a lifetime. So, unlike the politician who only has a short-term view of policy decisions, bureaucrats can have a much more long-term vision. Can we tap into the ability of our bureaucrats to think long-term?
Survival instincts create several mental models in the human brain. Short-term temporal orientation is one among them. No doubt this inherent nature of the brain can blinker leaders when it comes to the growth potential of countries and corporations. The future will belong to those countries and corporates that can develop alternative structures that facilitate long-term temporal orientation.