Conversational time travel: Evidence of a retrospective bias in real life conversations

Burcu Demiray, Matthias R. Mehl, Mike Martin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


We examined mental time travel reflected onto individuals' utterances in real-life conversations using a naturalistic observation method: Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR, a portable audio recorder that periodically and unobtrusively records snippets of ambient sounds and speech). We introduced the term conversational time travel and examined, for the first time, how much individuals talked about their personal past versus personal future in real life. Study 1 included 9,010 sound files collected from 51 American adults who carried the EAR over 1 weekend and were recorded every 9 min for 50 s. Study 2 included 23,103 sound files from 33 young and 48 healthy older adults from Switzerland who carried the EAR for 4 days (2 weekdays and 1 weekend, counterbalanced). 30-s recordings occurred randomly throughout the day. We developed a new coding scheme for conversational time travel: We listened to all sound files and coded each file for whether the participant was talking or not. Those sound files that included participant speech were also coded in terms of their temporal focus (e.g., past, future, present, time-independent) and autobiographical nature (i.e., about the self, about others). We, first, validated our coding scheme using the text analysis tool, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count. Next, we compared the percentages of past- and future-oriented utterances about the self (to tap onto conversational time travel). Results were consistent across all samples and showed that participants talked about their personal past two to three times as much as their personal future (i.e., retrospective bias). This is in contrast to research showing a prospective bias in thinking behavior, based on self-report and experience-sampling methods. Findings are discussed in relation to the social functions of recalling the personal past (e.g., sharing memories to bond with others, to update each other, to teach, to give advice) and to the directive functions of future-oriented thought (e.g., planning, decision making, goal setting that are more likely to happen privately in the mind). In sum, the retrospective bias in conversational time travel seems to be a functional and universal phenomenon across persons and across real-life situations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2160
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberNOV
StatePublished - Nov 13 2018


  • Autobiographical memory
  • Conversations
  • Electronically Activated Recorder
  • Future-oriented thought
  • Mental time travel
  • Real life
  • Retrospective bias

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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