More than one way to think about time – Fellows’ seminar by Oleksiy Polunin

31 August 2021

“The human mind continuously produces explanations because an explained world is perceived as more secure, open for forecasting and for planning successful actions,” said STIAS fellow Oleksiy Polunin of the Department of Psychology, National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine. “In all cultures and on all continents the explanations rely on the notion of causality. Causality is used both to model simple events and explain the most complex happenings in the world. My project is about examining causality, specifically looking at the role of the human mind and human thinking about time for uncovering causal relationships. I will examine the limits of stability of causal relationships and reliability of the representation of causal relationships in the human mind.”


STIAS fellow Oleksiy Polunin during his seminar on 26 August 2021

“To be human means to think, to have a world picture, to be aware of that world picture and of one’s contribution to that world picture,” explained Polunin. “Your world picture is for resolving uncertainty by explaining the environment and events. An explained world looks less dangerous. It’s also for more efficient action, satisfying needs, survival and to make it easier to organise your own behaviour and social life. Even if it’s wrong, it’s better to have a world picture and the better our world picture, the better we satisfy individual and social needs.”

“Our ability to act and accomplish actions relies on our notions of time and our ability to find out about causal relationships,” he continued. “What is possible and what not? What are you going to do and what are you not going to do?”

Polunin started by explaining causal theories ranging from regulatory theories where an event may be the cause of another event without a necessary connection between the two and the human mind perceives a simple sequence of events and causality; nomological theories which derive the existence of causality from the laws of nature; dispositional theory which is centred around active and passive disposition with active taken as the cause; and, manipulability/intervention theories where individuals induce a certain effect by a certain action.

“Within the manipulability approach to causality, I am examining how far the human cognitive system contributes to manipulation of the mental representations of cause, effect and their temporal connectedness,” he said. In doing so, instead of the conventional singular time flow representation, Polunin has introduced the idea of the multiple mental representations of time. This means that the human mind generates not one but many time representations that differ in their properties. Polunin is interested in uncovering variations in a causality representation within multiple cognitive representations of time flow. “Basically I am asking can we manipulate a causality representation without changing anything in the external world?”

“The multiple representations of time flow enable a wider spectrum of behavioural responses. Being mapped on the different time representations one physical stimuli produces different reactions. The multitude of time representations also enable different perspectives on a life event, and so its re-evaluation over time,” he said.

Speaking about the multiple representations of time, he distinguished the situational and propositional time flow, the time flows modelled from the first- and the third-person perspective and so on. “For instance, within the situational model of time flow the mind mentally jumps from one situation to another (sometimes in seconds). This organisation of life results in high cognitive and emotional costs swallowing not only time but the resources of the cognitive system, making us tired at the end of the day.”

He also emphasised that different cultures and languages have very different representations of time. “So does a different language of the future lead to different behaviour? And if a culture does not have words for time does that lead to a different concept of life.”

Thinking about time and causality differently

Polunin is interested in understanding whether and how different time representations may affect human ability to model causality. “By doing so one goes beyond the traditional assumption about singularity of mental time flow and introduces the notion of multiple time representations. Important is that each of these time representations has a specific impact on the mental representation of an object over time.”

He is working on an experimental programme to understand how we can activate different mental representations of time flow and map causal relationships on the different time representation. And he is particularly interested in interdisciplinary examples and finding cases from other fields.

He described one such experiment already undertaken which involved a situation in which a subject is buying a computer. Subjects were presented with two scenarios in which the proposed monetary saving was the same but in one wording of the scenario the whole situation was moved to four days in the future while in the other wording the saving opportunity was four days in the future but the situation occurred in the present – thus representing a situational versus a propositional future monetary saving. Two groups of subjects made decisions on whether they accept the saving proposition with each having the possibility of saving the same amount of money on the same day in the future. Only the wordings of the propositions were different. Results showed that the number of positive responses given to the saving proposition within the situational future is significantly higher (57%) than that for an equal monetary saving within a propositional future (39%).

“At the level of cognitive representation, two different temporal processes were activated,” explained Polunin, “one for a situational future and the other for a propositional future. Depending on the task wording, the human mind is able to develop different temporal representations of time flow. When individuals activate situational time flow, they are nearer to the realisation of the future perspective, and thus they agree to accept it with higher probability than when a propositional time flow is activated. This leads to discrepancies in decision outcomes in mathematically equal propositions. Thus, the distinguishing feature of these two temporal processes is their impact on the subjective value of the money proposed to be saved.”

“These findings as well as ideas about the mind’s ability to develop a multitude of different cognitive representations for time flow challenge the conventional time concept within the social sciences. They show us that there is not only way to think about time.”

Polunin believes these ideas could contribute to the reconceptualisation of the role of time in decision making which is particularly relevant, for example, in areas like economic modelling and understanding the future impact of economic behaviours.

“I believe it can also help make us more aware of our own contribution to the world picture.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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