Making decisions with the future in mind: Developmental and comparative identification of mental time travel

Thomas Suddendorf, Janie Busby Grant

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

228 Citations (Scopus)


Mechanisms that produce behavior which increase future survival chances provide an adaptive advantage. The flexibility of human behavior is at least partly the result of one such mechanism, our ability to travel mentally in time and entertain potential future scenarios. We can study mental time travel in children using language. Current results suggest that key developments occur between the ages of three to five. However, linguistic performance can be misleading as language itself is developing. We therefore advocate the use of methodologies that focus on future-oriented action. Mental time travel required profound changes in humans’ motivational system, so that current behavior could be directed to secure not just present, but individually anticipated future needs. Such behavior should be distinguishable from behavior based on current drives, or on other mechanisms. We propose an experimental paradigm that provides subjects with an opportunity to act now to satisfy a need not currently experienced. This approach may be used to assess mental time travel in nonhuman animals. We conclude by describing a preliminary study employing an adaptation of this paradigm for children
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)110-125
Number of pages16
JournalLearning and Motivation
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2005
Externally publishedYes


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