A Project of the University of Pennsylvania and the John Templeton Foundation


Prospective abilities – how much and how well a person prospects, and to what extent the person is able to bring prospective knowledge to bear on the selection of action – should be recognized as a basic explanatory variable in the psychological sciences. In Stage 1, Seligman and his steering committee seek to nurture the incipient science of prospection, and to ensure that gains in psychological and neuroscientific knowledge about prospection will be applied in ways that improve individual and societal functioning.

The Stage 1 scholars focus their fundamental research on four domains of prospection: measurement, mechanisms, application, and improving prospection. This page describes projects being carried out by the grant’s Steering Committee.

Measuring Prospection in Everyday Life

Roy Baumeister’s lab at Florida State University investigates prospection using methods of social psychology. Working with  Dr. Wilhelm Hofmann at the University of Chicago and Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota, he has completed a large experience sampling study to find out how much people think about past, present, and future and to learn what factors are linked to prospective thought. Working with Andrew and Sarah Ainsworth, he has developed methods to induce a prospective mind state and has begun examining the effects of these mind states on social behaviors such as interpersonal trust, moral judgment, and risk-taking.

The Roots of Prospection in the Large-Scale Networks in the Brain

Chandra Sripada’s prospection research spans three domains.One important area concerns large-scale networks (LSNs). It is now recognized that the human brain is organized into roughly seven major LSNs, each associated with distinctive cognitive functions. Previous work has shown the default network, an important LSN, becomes more active during tasks that involve projection of one’s self into alternative times, places, and perspectives. But the default network does not operate alone; prospection requires delicate coordination between default network and several other LSNs involved in directing the focus of attention. We are deploying advanced neuroimaging connectivity methods in order to better understand the remarkable ‘dance’ amongst LSNs during prospective activity. For example, we have examined interrelationships between default network and attention networks during imagination and reinterpretation of emotionally evocative stimuli (see paper here), and the ways the relationships amongst LSNs change during childhood development (see paper here).

Regulation of Prospection

A second topic of research in the Sripada lab is the regulation of prospection. People routinely regulate their prospective activity, engaging in prospective thought when it is needed and turning off prospective thought when it is no longer necessary or it becomes maladaptive. But little is known about the neural mechanisms that enable the regulation of prospection or that contribute to failures of regulation. Based on an important body of research from Roy Baumeister and his colleagues, Sripada and his group are looking at the ways that top-down regulation of default network exhibits fatigue over time. They are also examining the role of dopamine and other catecholamines in enhancing the effectiveness of mechanisms responsible for prospective regulation (see paper here).

Prospection and Free Will

A third major line of research conducted by Sripada investigates the role of prospection in free will. It is widely thought that free will is closely tied to decision-making. Philosophical discussions of decision-making, however, are tellingly incomplete; they invariably presuppose an agent who has a mentally represented set of options already fully in hand. That is, the focus is entirely on the selective processes that identify and execute the options most worth doing. But where do mentally represented sets of options come from in the first place? Once we focus on this constructive aspect of decision-making, we notice something important:  While the option sets of simpler animals are relatively limited, humans have a number of striking psychological powers—especially remarkable powers of prospection—that enable them to construct option sets of unparalleled size and diversity. As a result, humans can express themselves in countless ways. This latitude for self-expression is, I argue, the distinctive basis of human freedom (see paper here).

Can Imagination Be Improved?

Martin Seligman’s research at the University of Pennsylvania is aimed at helping to demystify teleology and imagination in the behavioral and brain sciences by turning prospection into a ‘real’ scientific construct – one that can be measured, intervened on, and probed for its underlying mechanisms.

A course titled “Imagination and Creativity in Psychology: An Applied Course and Research Study” was taught by Dr. Seligman to undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania between January and May of 2013. Eighteen students took the semester-long course, and sixteen control participants only completed pre- and post-intervention questionnaires.  The course used didactic lecture and experiential learning techniques to help participants master the science of imagination and apply it to a topic of their choice for their final project, an original proposal for a research study in psychology.

Before the course began, all participants completed a survey with several measures of creativity, including verbal divergent-thinking tasks (Torrance, 1972), the Creative Achievement Questionnaire (Carson et al., 2005), and others. They completed these same measures at the end of the semester, and again seven months after the end of the semester.

Data is currently under analysis. Though preliminary results do not demonstrate statistical significance (partially attributable to the small sample size of this pilot study), they indicate a promising future for similar interventions conducted on a larger scale.

The Philosophical and Moral Aspects of Prospection

Peter Railton’s interest in prospection stems from a desire to understand the fundamental organizational and functional principles of the mind.  Understanding these principles can make a significant contribution to a number of areas of philosophy.  For example, moral theories and accounts of freedom of the will depend crucially upon considerations of human motivation.  From the standpoint of prospection, motivation should not be understood as a given set of drives, but as a flexible capacity to supply directed effort toward identified goals and the means to achieve them.  Evidence is accumulating that this is indeed how the motivational system functions, opening up new avenues for moral development and for understanding how choice can be guided by valuation, and thus within the normative scope of agency.  Railton explores these ideas in a series of papers recently published, or in press.

Similarly, the standpoint of prospection alters the way we think about belief—rather than thinking of belief as a representation of past experience, we should see it as fundamentally projective.  This helps solve various puzzles about the ways in which belief extends beyond evidence and functions in the guidance of action.  Interestingly, this approach also makes possible an account of skilled activity that brings “knowing how” closer to “knowing that”—a knowledge base involves forward modeling of situations and prospects, and thus already incorporates translations into action.  Mediation of this knowledge by the affective system means that this translation will have action-guiding force.  Here, too, we find a potential account of the problematic category of “intuition” or “intuitive” knowledge. Railton has been giving talks on these topics in philosophy departments and interdisciplinary symposia in North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, and now has several papers appearing in print.  Finally, prospection affords a framework for understanding how spontaneous monitoring of thought and action is possible, without inducing regress—expectation sets a standard for experience which permits real-time comparison.  This in turn helps solve one of the thorniest problems in philosophy—how can a system be aptly responsive to reasons in a non-deliberative way?  Given the models we have been developing, belief and desire both exhibit spontaneous evidence-sensitivity, and serve to reorient the individual in appropriate ways. 

Two illustrative papers are:

  • P. Railton, “The Affective Dog and Its Rational Tale”, forthcoming in Ethics.
  • P. Railton, “Reliance, Trust, and Belief”, forthcoming in Inquiry.