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Thinking about the past and future in daily life: an experience sampling study of individual differences in mental time travel


Remembering the past and imagining the future are hallmarks of mental time travel. We provide evidence that such experiences are influenced by individual differences in temporal and affective biases in cognitive style, particularly brooding rumination (a negative past-oriented bias) and optimism (a positive future-oriented bias). Participants completed a 7-day, cellphone-based experience-sampling study of temporal orientation and mental imagery. Multilevel models showed that individual differences in brooding rumination predicted less vivid and positive past- and future-oriented thoughts, even after controlling for depressed mood. People high in brooding rumination were also more likely to report thinking about a past experience when probed at random during the day. Conversely, optimists were more likely to report more vivid and positive future-oriented, but not past-oriented thoughts, although they did not report thinking more or less often about the past and future. The results suggest that temporal and affective biases in cognitive style influence how people think about the past and future in daily life.

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    We also assessed the role of gender. Past research suggests that women ruminate more than men (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991), and our sample was approximately two-thirds female; however, gender did not decrease the effect of brooding on vividness.


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P.S. was supported by a Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Banting Post-Doctoral Fellowship. D.L.S received research Grants from the National Institute of Mental Health R01 MH060941.

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Correspondence to Roger E. Beaty.

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Beaty, R.E., Seli, P. & Schacter, D.L. Thinking about the past and future in daily life: an experience sampling study of individual differences in mental time travel. Psychological Research 83, 805–816 (2019).

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