Functions of spontaneous and voluntary future thinking: evidence from subjective ratings

Abstract

Future thinking is defined as the ability to withdraw from reality and mentally project oneself into the future. The primary aim of the present study was to examine whether functions of future thoughts differed depending on their mode of elicitation (spontaneous or voluntary) and an attribute of goal-relatedness (selected-goal-related or selected-goal-unrelated). After producing spontaneous and voluntary future thoughts in a laboratory paradigm, participants provided ratings on four proposed functions of future thinking (self, directive, social, and emotional regulation). Findings showed that spontaneous and voluntary future thoughts were rated similarly on all functions except the directive function, which was particularly relevant to spontaneous future thoughts. Future thoughts classed as goal-related (selected-goal-related) were rated higher across all functions, and there was largely no interaction between mode of elicitation and goal-relatedness. A higher proportion of spontaneous future thoughts were selected-goal-related compared with voluntary future thoughts. In general, these results indicate that future thinking has significant roles across affective, behavioural, self and social functions, and supports theoretical views that implicate spontaneous future thought in goal-directed cognition and behaviour.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For an in-depth discussion of conceptual differences between spontaneous and voluntary future thought, see Cole & Kvavilashvili, (2019b).

  2. 2.

    There are several phenomena that are related to spontaneous future thinking. For example, mind wandering is described as a shift in one’s attention away from events in the environment and towards mental content generated by the individual, and is often, but not necessarily, about the future (Smallwood & Schooler, 2015). Daydreaming is related to both mind wandering and spontaneous future thinking but generally involves withdrawing from the surrounding environment and moving one’s thoughts onto absent or imaginary events/objects. Importantly, daydreaming and mind wandering can involve volitional processes (Dorsch, 2015; Seli et al., 2016), whereas a cardinal property of spontaneous future thought is its unbidden nature (see Cole & Kvavilashvili, 2019a).

  3. 3.

    The principle underlying our decision to match the N size to a previous study was based on the fact that this study (Cole & Berntsen, 2016) which had effect sizes (ηp2) of 0.10—0.26 comparing selected-goal-related and non selected-goal-related future thoughts. This previous study had large enough effect sizes to find significant differences at the 0.05 and 0.01 levels. But because Cole & Berntsen (2016) included 32 participants in past and future groups, and we had only one future group, an N size of 32 was deemed adequate to find differences in a within-groups design.

  4. 4.

    We thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this point.

  5. 5.

    Considering that one participant was male, it would be useful to ascertain the effect of mode of elicitation and goal-salience when this male is excluded; thus making our results generalisable to the female population. When this male was excluded, analyses of function ratings with the remaining 30 participants, with the same ANOVAs presented in “Functions” showed consistent main effects and interactions as with the male included. Thus, we conclude that the addition of this male did not affect our main analyses.

  6. 6.

    Although somewhat related, as both refer to goals, we believe that current concerns and the directive function are conceptually different. Current concerns refer to higher order goals whereas the directive function is centred around the pursuit of these goals (so the thoughts/actions required to achieve goals, see Klinger, 1975; Pillemer, 2003). Also, data from the study indicated that some of the current-concern related thoughts were not rated as 10 (highly) for the directive function. This indicates that these could be related but separable constructs. In fact, 16.18% of current concern related thoughts were rated low (< 3) on the planning function, 33.82% for the goal setting function, and 32.35% for the decision-making function.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to extend our thanks to Chloe Kemsley for help in data collection, and Krystian Barzykowski for helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

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Appendices

Appendix A

Future thought characteristics questionnaire (Part 1).

figurea

Appendix B

Future thought characteristics questionnaire (Part 2).

figureb

Appendix C

Examples of selected-goal-related and selected-goal-unrelated future thoughts.

Example 1: Selected-goal-related spontaneous future thought.

“Shopping for Christmas gifts with my stepdad” (Female, 18).

Relevant current concern: Finishing Christmas shopping.

Example 2: Selected-goal-related voluntary future thought.

“Someone breaking my trust and hurting me” (Female, 18).

Relevant current concern: To try and talk with and meet new people.

Example 3: Selected-goal-unrelated spontaneous future thought.

“I pictured myself in a wedding dress getting married. Actively thinking about future goals” (Female, 20).

All five current concerns: (1) spend more time with friends, (2) make more time to see boyfriend, (3) need to do more reading for university, (4) I am proud of myself for reaching 36-point target on SONA, (4) I am excited to start my new job in summer.

Example 4: selected-goal-unrelated voluntary future thought.

“Picking the phone up to my mam calling and asking about my day” (Female, 19).

All five current concerns: (1) finding a good job, (2) have a family, (3) travel, (4) find a nice house, (5) get my degree.

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Duffy, J., Cole, S.N. Functions of spontaneous and voluntary future thinking: evidence from subjective ratings. Psychological Research (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-020-01338-9

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