Desktop version

Home arrow Sociology arrow Homo Prospectus


How This Book Came About

This book arose from dissatisfaction with the present. After about a decade of working in positive psychology, studying positive emotions, positive traits, and positive institutions, I sensed that something deeper than the mere neglect of the positive was missing from psychology-as-usual.

What troubles people—what we are sad or anxious or angry about—is for the most part in the present or in the past. What we desire, in contrast, is more often in the future. A psychology that devotes itself to troubles can get away with an epistemology that emphasizes the past and the present and that regards the future as wholly derived from the past and present. Hence, psychology's 120- year obsession with memory (the past) and perception (the present) and its absence of serious work on such constructs as expectation, anticipation, and will. Hence, too, the appeal to some of a "hard determinism" in which behavior is somehow taken out of the hands of the agent and placed under the control of the agent's history.

Roy Baumeister, my kindred spirit, believes the past and the present to be overrated. We were collaborating on mental energy— another sorely neglected topic in psychology—orphaned by psychology's abandoning Freud's hydraulic theory of emotional life. Baumeister suggested that consciousness is, for the most part, the generation of simulations about possible futures—an idea that I fell in love with. We fleshed this idea out in print and a couple of drafts changed hands. In the meantime, Baumeister and E. J. Masicampo (2010) published a learned Psychological Review article in which this slant on consciousness was there, but was swamped almost to invisibility by other bowings and scrapings to the reviewers.

In October 2010, I gave the Tanner lecture in philosophy at the University of the Michigan on the topic of positive psychology. Over lunch, Chandra Sripada, an assistant professor of both philosophy and psychiatry, discovered that I had never heard of the default network and regaled me with the wondrous discovery of a reliable brain circuit that seemed to be a good candidate for the locus of Baumeister's simulations of possible futures.

That evening a dinner took place joining the Michigan faculties of philosophy and psychology over many bottles of an indifferent red wine. I was seated next to Peter Railton, a well-known moral philosopher. Railton told me that he was interested in how desire seemed to be more about forming a positive image of a possible future than about drives pushing us from behind. At this point, I was called on to say a few words and I was moved to recall Morton White's (1956) Toward Reunion in Philosophy's unfilled promise that philosophy should rejoin hands with its stepchild, psychology.

"Everyone in this room pays lip service to interdisciplinary work," I said. "Let's go around the room and say as a result of this day what we will now do differently? Peter Railton and I will start. We're going to write an article together on being drawn into the future."

This was the very first that Railton had heard of this project. Nevertheless, the project actually began a few days later. Railton and Sripada sent me several articles to read and within 2 weeks, moving at the speed of inspiration, I sent them the very first of what would become scores of drafts that culminated in this book. In this first pass, I made four points:

  • 1. Hard determinism fails because all science is at best statistical.
  • 2. Human consciousness is largely about running simulations of the future, perhaps subserved by the default network, and these prospections often have emotional valence.
  • 3. Prospection is the locus of expectation, choice, decision, preference, and free will.
  • 4. The "hard problem of consciousness"—why subjectivity exists—is illuminated by the possibility that subjectivity streamlines making very complex choices among multidimensional simulations.

I concluded that human action is drawn by the future, as well as being influenced, but not driven, by the past. All of this seemed pretty naive, however, to the Railton, the philosopher, and Sripada, the philosopher who was also a working neuroscientist. They were, however, to become the final two of the four horsemen.

Enter the Eagle Scouts of philanthropy: the John Templeton Foundation. I had knocked around science long enough to know my way around funding. By 1996 I had been a supplicant for 40 years and my knees were almost worn out. Then I became President of the American Psychological Association and suggested that psychology turn its attention to what makes life worth living, rather than just to what impedes the good life. Something odd began to happen. Donors came to me.

One of these was the Templeton Foundation. Shortly after my election, I got a warm letter from Jack Templeton, an accomplished neurosurgeon and the head of the Foundation, offering to hold a festschrift in my honor.

"Hold on, dear," warned my wife, Mandy, looking at the Foundation's website. "This foundation has an agenda, a religious agenda. Call them and tell them you are not for rent."

Which I obediently did. The next day the Foundation's executive staff appeared in my living room.

"We do indeed have an agenda," they said. "We fund the intersection of religion and science looking for new spiritual information. Your work is not about religion, but it is about what makes life worth living and we want to fund that aspect. We will never try to co-opt you, and you will not be able to co-opt us." This was their promise, and they have kept it scrupulously and generously. This is the reason for the moniker of Eagle Scouts: They are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, and all the rest.

Since that time, the Foundation has regularly asked me to spot initiatives that were adventurous, good science, unlikely to be funded by conventional agencies with a pathology agenda like NIMH, and compatible with Sir John Templeton's vision of a science of human flourishing.

"I just happen to have an initiative and I have the four horsemen to do cutting edge research on it." I then explained the idea at length.

"This is just the kind of science that Sir John loved," was Executive Vice President Barnaby Marsh's first reaction. "Sir John thought that imagination—future-mindedness—was the key to success." And in due course, the Templeton Foundation funded us four authors to write this book and to do psychology and neuroscience on prospection. They actually doubled-down and also created a $3 million research competition for the measurement, mechanisms, applications, and improvement of prospection ( content/proj ects).

You will learn more about the results of all this in the course of this book.

The four horsemen went to work. We wrote at least 20 drafts of our first paper and we ultimately sent it in to the leading theoretical journal in psychology, the Psychological Review. The editor said it was "the most interesting paper he had read since becoming editor," but that it was not theoretical enough. We knew that this was the start of an uphill climb. We then sent it to the Psychological Bulletin. The editor said that this was one of the most interesting papers he had read since becoming editor, but it did not review the literature exhaustively. We then sent it to Perspectives on Psychological Science, also a leading journal. The editor, Bobbie Spellman, said she could publish anything she wanted to if she thought it was really good and this paper was really good. She published it (Seligman, Railton, Baumeister & Sripada, 2013). This article set forth the history of science's rejection of teleology and several of the implications of taking prospection seriously as a new framework for psychological science.

But it was clear to us that there were many more topics long embedded in the old past-present framework that the new framework of prospection liberates for rethinking: learning, memory, perception, emotion, intuition, choice, consciousness, morality, character, creativity, and mental illness. So we spent the next 3 years meeting together periodically to debate, to argue, and to write. One of us took the lead on each of the 11 chapters, but each one of us commented on each of the chapters. It was then my job to integrate the chapters and smooth out differences of voice and perspective.

So after 4 years of writing, here is the book. The new framework for the future is now in your hands.


Baumeister, R. F., & Masicampo, E. J. (2010). Conscious thought is for facilitating social and cultural interactions: How mental simulations serve the animal-culture interface. Psychological Review, 117, 945-971.

Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. New York, NY: Knopf. Seligman, M. E. P., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2013). Navigating into the future or driven by the past. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8,119-141.

White, M. (1956). Toward reunion in philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

Related topics