The Imagination of the Future: a Hidden Concept in the Study of Consumer Decision Making

ABSTRACT - The "future," having no concrete basis in reality, is best conceived as part of an individual's thoughts or imagination. Many theoretical frameworks for studying consumer behavior incorporate some aspect of how consumers envision future events, yet little theoretical or empirical work has addressed this concept directly. This paper reviews several topics which implicitly include a future perception concept and suggests how these and other areas of study could benefit from models which incorporate the concept explicitly. The potential dimensionality of such a concept is reviewed in the context of a typology of futurizing styles.


Rebecca H. Holman (1981) ,"The Imagination of the Future: a Hidden Concept in the Study of Consumer Decision Making", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 187-191.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 187-191


Rebecca H. Holman, Young and Rubicam, Inc.

[This paper was prepared while the author was a member of the Marketing Department, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.]


The "future," having no concrete basis in reality, is best conceived as part of an individual's thoughts or imagination. Many theoretical frameworks for studying consumer behavior incorporate some aspect of how consumers envision future events, yet little theoretical or empirical work has addressed this concept directly. This paper reviews several topics which implicitly include a future perception concept and suggests how these and other areas of study could benefit from models which incorporate the concept explicitly. The potential dimensionality of such a concept is reviewed in the context of a typology of futurizing styles.


Research on time and consumer behavior has focused mainly on the time allocation process (Wilson and Holman 1980). This "economic" perspective on time is, however, only one of several worthy of attention by consumer behavior researchers (Settle 1980). Although the literature contains numerous examples of the "subjective" approaches (see Jacoby, Szybillo, and Berning (1976) relatively few works directly address how consumer decision making is affected by individuals' subjective experiences of time. (An exception is Settle, Alreck, and Glasheen 1978.) The topic of the subjective experience of time is an important one for consumer behavior researchers, however. Just as the concept of "perceived risk" has expanded the ability of researchers to explain consumer behavior toward risky products or services, so may study of the perception of time enable a more thorough explanation of time budgeting. Consumers who perceive units of time differently may plan different activities for otherwise identical time periods. Thus, perception of time may be a meaningful basis for market segmentation to the extent that consumer decision making is affected by time perception.

While it seems that consumer behavior researchers have neglected an important facet of human behavior, in fact that neglect is more apparent than real. As Hawes pointed out (1980) many of the global models of buyer behavior incorporate some references to consumers' experience or perception of time. Furthermore, one aspect of time perception, the conceptualization or imagination of the future, is embedded in several of the explanations of buyer behavior employed by past researchers. If such a concept exists, if it impacts upon consumer behavior, and if it has remained unmeasured, even "hidden" in previous studies, then there is a potential benefit to be gained by scrutinizing it and explicitly investigating its impact. The purposes of this paper are to examine the concept of the imagination of the future, to review some of the consumer behavior topics which implicitly incorporate the concept, and to suggest the dimensionality of the concept.


Before discussing the potential impact that conceptualizations of the future have on consumer behavior, it is first necessary to define the concept and to briefly trace its history in the literature. That is the purpose of the first part of this paper.

A basic premise underlying the paper is that the future, since it can never be experienced directly, is wholly imaginary. This existential position is compatible with Lewin's ahistorical approach (see Kassarjian 1973) to cognitive processes and leads to the conclusion that time itself has relevance only as the individual structures it into something meaningful. The future is no more or no less "real" to the individual than the past as both reside equally in the imagination, whether of remembered or of anticipated events (Lewin 1936).

The two major categories of events which enter into an individual's life space and impact upon that individual (within Lewin's theory) are things in the environment and things in the person's mind (Lewin 1951). As the latter may consist of current perceptions or of imaginary events (from the past or the future), it follows that the future holds a very important place in the life space of the individual.

Such an importance of the future is not found in other conceptualizations of human behavior. Freudian psychology, for example asserts that the past determines the present with imagination of the future (should it occur at all) being dominated by recollections of past events. Likewise, Marxian social theory sees the present and the future being determined rather irrevocably by past events (although it is the promise of a better future which serves as the motivating force in overturning capitalism for example).

Some researchers have attempted to deal with aspects of the imagination of the future. One group has looked at the length of one's future time perspective (how far into the future one normally thinks) and how that relates to a variety of other behaviors (e.g., Heimberg 1963; Bauer and Gillies 1972; Lamm, Schmidt, and Trommsdorff 1976). Another approach has been to study the physiopsychological bases of time perception (e.g., Michon 1975). Both of these approaches have measured time objectively with mechanical recording devices like timepieces or calendars, or in reference to such devices, which may not be how time is always perceived (especially when the individual is in a heightened emotional state). For example, there is evidence that the existence of a well-developed concept of the future is a key element in the psychological adjustment of terminally-ill patients, even when that future, when measured in objective terms, is not likely to be realizable (Susman 1980).

What is most important about one's imagination of the future is how that imagination or orientation to the future affects current behavior. (It is equally important to measure one's orientation to the past, but that is not covered here.) The concept of future imagination has appeared (albeit implicitly) in a number of past explanations given for human (and consumer) behavior. A review of several of these further illustrates the importance of the concept.


Cultural Influence

Culture incorporates time perception in the verb structure of the language of the culture. The Whorfian linguistic relativity hypothesis, that one is only able to think in the terms provided by one's language (Whorf 1956), would lead to the conclusion that if the verbs of one's language include past, present, and future tense, then one structures time into these categories. If one's language includes verb tenses which do not contain a category for events and behaviors which have not yet occurred (Arabic is one example), then one will not speak (or think) of the phenomenon of the future the same way as one who speaks and thinks in Standard American English (which does include a future tense). Furthermore, there is the possibility that one language may include verb forms which create new conceptualizations of time or span time dimensions (from the perspective of one language) making temporal translations from one language to the other virtually impossible. (See Whorl 1956, for a discussion of Hopi verb structures with these characteristics, pp. 143-5).

This is an important problem, and potential source of error in data, when one attempts research trans-culturally. For example, in the United States, approximately eighty percent of all blacks speak a language referred to as "Black English'' (Baratz and Shuy 1969 quoted in Dillard 1972, p. 229), and "[i]n the system of its verbs, Black English reveals the greatest difference from white American dialects...'' (Dillard 1972, p. 40). The problem is further compounded because Black English and Standard American English resemble one another superficially, sharing a great number of words. In fact the tendency in the past has been to characterize the language of most blacks as a "substandard'' form of Standard American English, which it is not (Dillard 1972, p. 39-70). Thus research on blacks which does not incorporate the notions of time (and the future) inherent in the tenses of Black English risks interjecting an uncontrolled and perhaps unconscious source of bias.

The point is that by the very language used to communicate with subjects (or with members of a target audience, for example) the person forming messages imposes a concept of time (and futurity) inherent in the language used. Even if the respondent can translate from one language to another, there is a potential for misunderstanding unless the respondent is truly multi-lingual and thinks in the time categories used by the initiator of messages. (This potential for misunderstanding apparently exists even with languages which are "linguistically close" as with French and German. [Anecdotal evidence supplied by Gerard M. Langneau, personal communication, October 1978.]

Sociological Influence

An important component of the "sociology of consumption" is the set of cultural values held by consumer groups (Nicosia and Mayer 1976). The work by Rokeach (1973) has established the impact of values upon human behavior and their usefulness in explaining buyer behavior has also been documented (e.g., Vinson, Munson, and Nakaniski 1977; Vinson, Scott, and Lament 1977). What has not been explicitly recognized is the implicit temporal quality of values as operationalized by Rokeach and those who use his work as a foundation.

A key element in Rokeach's concept of values is the subset referred to as "terminal values." As pointed out by Vinson, Munson, and Nakanishi, Rokeach thought of terminal values as descriptive of "the individual's desired end-state of existence..." (1977, p. 247). In order to respond to the Value Survey developed by Rokeach, a subject would need to evoke his/her ideal image of the future. Thus the concept operationally requires that a subject has formulated some concept of the future and that he/she describe it using the Value Survey.

Carman (1978) may have recognized the temporal dimension of values, although this is not discussed in his paper. Carman formulated a model relating values, life styles and consumption. One concept in his model was terminal values, another was time use activities. Carman. in effect, has stated the relationship between perception of the future and time use posited at the beginning of the current paper and has extended the relationships to life styles and other types of buyer behavior.

A subset of personal values influencing the perception of the future is the impact of religious beliefs. Religious groups in the United States have noticeably different degrees of belief in a spiritual afterlife and this apparently affects the time allocation processes of members (Azzi and Ehrenberg 1975). Thus the individual who believes that s reward in the afterlife is predicated upon laboring to "increase his talents to the greater glory of God" (Green 1972, p. 412) is likely to behave quite differently in the present than one who does not believe in an afterlife or who does not believe that efforts during one's life affect one's destiny after death. Green (1972) has done an excellent job along these lines of contrasting the temporal attitudes of Negro subcultures with those adhering to the ideals of the Protestant Ethic, a contrast which finds its basis in religious beliefs.

An even sharper contrast is found between the linear concepts of time found in most "western" religions and the nonlinear concepts of some "eastern" religions, notably Buddhism and Hinduism. These differences may lead to different beliefs for example about the importance of one's death, about the significance of units of time for planning purposes, and more importantly for consumer behavior researchers may make possible an eastern acceptance of one's social status that is not feasible in western cultures (Olcott 1944; Pocock 1976).

The religious beliefs held by groups within society may predispose individuals against even speculating on the future. The argument is that as everything is under God's control, by trying to envision what will come, one is trying to "second-guess" God. Forecasting is prohibited as it presumes a knowledge that is God's alone. An example of this was reported by Eickelman (1977) who described the Muslim influence upon Moroccan tribesman, but such an orientation toward planning and forecasting is undoubtedly present to some degree in all groups which believe in predestination.

If one were to use religious teachings (or beliefs) about the future as covariates in research, the differences in future orientation could possibly be measured and controlled in analysis. Otherwise such aspects of time and future orientation remain as random error in analyses of heterogeneous groups.

Psychological Influence

Attribution theory, the study of hen individuals perceive the causes of behavior, contains a large temporal component. This relationship was pointed out by Kelley: "Implicit in the covariation principle is the important and little investigated problem of the exact temporal relations assumed to exist between s cause and its effect" (1973, p. 109). A typology of causality which defines the possible temporal relationships between cause and effect was developed by Evered (1976). Evered identified three primary types of causes: antecedent causality (behavior occurs because of some event that preceded it in time); concurrent causality (behavior occurs because of some event that occurs at the same time); and prospective causality (behavior occurs because of some event that has not yet occurred but should occur in the future).

When attributions deal with "expectations" the notion of the nature of the causality of the future is invoked. Belief that the future is based upon events occurring in the past, a major premise of most forecasting techniques, involves a concept of antecedent causality. One expects a future that is similar, under similar conditions, to events that one has observed in the past.

Using a concept of concurrent causality would predispose an individual to expect that events occurring at a future point in time will be a function of whatever else occurs at that point in time. This is a Gestaltic notion of events, very similar to Lewin's explanation of behavior (1951). One does not expect any particular event to occur but could envision a number of alternative scenarios.

A belief that an individual is able to shape future events by the actions taken in the present is an explicit belief in prospective causality. One expects what one has planned to occur in the future. The future is, therefore, foreseeable and manipulable to some extent. (The concept of the "self-fulfilling prophesy" fits nicely within this notion of causality.)

These three types of causality produce different conceptualizations of the term "expectations," and yet the type of causality used by individuals has been empirically investigated only rarely. Mizerski and Green (1978) studied causal schemata, but ignored the temporal dimensions of that causality. However, Mizerski and Green did determine that one's causal schema was related to other cognitive processes, suggesting that a clarification of temporality in causality could produce even stronger relationships among variables.

There are also concepts of the future embedded in some of the personality traits studied in the past. Some of these are listed below along with a brief discussion of the aspect of future perception captured by the trait.

Dogmatism.  The highly dogmatic individual is resistant to change preferring familiarity in events. This suggests that the high dogmatic desires a future that closely resembles the present and a present that closely resembles the past.

Need for Change.  The individual with a high need for change gets bored by repetitive tasks and environments. Unlike the high dogmatic, an individual with a need for change seeks a future that is unlike what has yet been experienced.

Need for Order.  The person with a high need for order can express it either through spatial ordering (keeping physical objects neat) or through temporal ordering (having things well-planned). When the ordering is expressed temporally, the individual hopes that the transitions into the future take place as planned and without discontinuities.

Locus of Control.  A highly internal person believes that events occur due to his or her own intervention. This individual sees the future as both predictable and alterable, depending on what he or she decides to do. The highly external individual, by contrast, sees the future as subject to control by forces other than those of the individual.

Creativity.  The person who is highly creative has an active imagination and is thus likely to be capable of producing many different scenarios of the future when asked to do so. This individual may also delight in envisioning futures that have not been conjectured before.

Deferred versus Immediate Gratification.  A person who is able to defer gratifications implicitly believes in the existence of a future in which those pleasures may be enjoyed. A person who opts for immediate gratification may feel that the future is so uncertain that one should take life's pleasures as they are presented.

While it would be theoretically possible to partition the above traits into a time component and all other components, it is unlikely that such an action would materially affect the research which has attempted to relate personality to consumer behavior. As pointed out by Kassarjian and Sheffet (1975). that body of research has been notably poor in isolating strong relationships and explaining much of the variance in the data. A more fruitful approach is the one taken by Settle, Alreck, and Glasheen (1978) who developed an instrument to measure time perception directly, treating it as an individual differences variable. What the above review illustrates is the pervasiveness of time (and especially future) dimensions in conceptualizations of human behavior.


It is now possible to construct a theoretical statement of the dimensionality of perceptions of the future. From this statement one ought to be able to construct hypothetical types of ways of imagining the future. These dimensions are discussed next.

First, it is probably essential that any discussion of future dimensionality be limited to one cultural or linguistic group, unless a sufficient similarity in verb structures can be demonstrated. Unless the categories used to conceptualize time are essentially the same, one risks enormous errors in interpretation. [An illustration of cultural/linguistic differences in the dimensionality of numeric measuring systems between Liberians and Americans can be found in Cole et al. (1971).]

From religious beliefs (and some personality traits) is the notion of the extent to which the future is predictable by man. Related to this, but slightly different is the degree to which an individual has control over the future, or whether that is under God's discretion alone.

Concepts of causality lead to envisioning the nature of causality itself. Next are a series of dimensions related to change: what is the race of change between the present and the future and how does that differ from the rate of change in the past; is change valued and if not, is it disruptive (of individuals or of society in general). Finally is the concept of the number of images one has of the future (permitting this number to equal zero perhaps when the language does not possess a future tense).

An application of this theoretical dimensionality can illustrate its utility. The work of Evered (1973) is a useful vehicle, as Evered's purpose was to identify the characteristic way individuals had of thinking about the future. Using an exhaustive procedure (including content analyses of samples of Kiting, responses to personality tests, and performance measures), Evered, through a phenomenological analysis, derived three futurizing styles. He called these "producer," "performer," and "prospector," (although "performer" was later renamed "participant" to more clearly reflect the intra-organizational characteristics of that type of individual). Each of these three styles is presented in Table 1 and is characterized in terms of the dimensions discussed above.

As can be seen from Table 1, the producer sees a single-imaged future that is predictable because of its similarity to the present (and the past). The individual does not have control over the future since events set in motion in the past will cause those events which are to occur. Change, when it occurs is disruptive and not valued.

The participant, like the producer has one image of a predictable future, but differs from the producer in that the future is different from the past. Change is valued if that change is orderly (and hence predictable). The individual has a dynamic impact upon the future, being instrumental in its design.



The prospector has traits in common with both the producer and the participant. Like the producer, the prospector does not see the individual as having control over the future; like the participant, the prospector sees a future that is different from the present. The prospector, however, is unwilling to predict the future as he/she envisions change as discontinuous with the present, and can therefore predict not one but many future scenarios. Change is not disruptive for the prospector; it is sought-out and valued.

Other hypothetical futurizing types could be generated, but these three have the advantage of being derived from observations of subjects (who were MBA students at UCLA). Other work needs to identify whether these three types exhaust the universe of realized types, and to determine the distribution of these three in other populations. An instrument to operationalize the measurement of these three was developed (Evered, Reilly, Holman 1976), but that instrument has not been fully validated to date.

Theory Building Using the Concept of Future Imagery

This paper has suggested that unexplained sources of variances in buyer behavior could be decreased by incorporating the concept of consumers' images of the future as a variable in analyses. This means that the concept needs to be included explicitly in models of consumer behavior, where in the past it was subsumed in other concepts (some of which have been discussed here). The following list provides suggestions for topics which might benefit from such a practice and also raises some other issues concerning the concept itself. [Acknowledgement is given to an anonymous reviewer for his/ her suggestions, some of which are included here.]

To what extent are budgeting activities (whether of time, energy, or money) affected by an "inflation psychology," which is nothing more than a particular scenario of the future?

How are investment patterns and durable goods purchases affected by one's futurizing style and by the nature of the future one envisions?

Dissatisfaction often results when one is not able to realize the future one had envisioned. Do consumers with different ways of conceptualizing the future have different tolerance levels for this type of disappointment?

What is the impact upon buyer-seller interactions when each has a different style of conceptualizing the future?

How is risk perceived differently by those with different images of the future?

Is one's style of conceptualizing the future affected by the aging process? Are age cohorts more likely to share future scenarios or is the future scenario independent of one's own age?

Is futurizing style situationally-dependent or does it span situations?

What are the cognitive processes underlying one's futurizing style?

Aside from linguistic differences, is there a sense of time and the future that spans cultures? If so, what are its dimensions?

Is the concept of the future likely to be of less importance in non-deliberative decision making than for planned purchases?

Obviously, a first step in investigating these and other questions is construction of an instrument to operationalize the concept of future imagery. The FAST instrument developed by Settle, Alreck, and Glasheen (1978) measures time orientation and has been extensively validated. Although it includes the future as one dimension, it was not designed for the work indicated here. Likewise, Heimberg's instrument (1963) measures the length of time one thinks into the future and is also not satisfactory. Constructing an instrument which does measure futurizing style is another area needing attention.


This paper has defined a concert of "future imagery" and identified how it has existed as an implicit concept in past research. Rarely has the concept been measured directly in the consumer behavior literature and thus any effect due to its influence remains as unexplained variance in analyses. The dimensionality of the concept was suggested and illustrated through presentation of a typology of futurizing styles developed previously. Suggestions for research questions linking the concept of future imagination to buyer behavior were provided.


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Rebecca H. Holman, Young and Rubicam, Inc.


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08 | 1981

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