Tracking the construction of episodic future thoughts

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2011 May;140(2):258-71. doi: 10.1037/a0022581.


The ability to mentally simulate possible futures (episodic future thinking) is of fundamental importance for various aspects of human cognition and behavior, but precisely how humans construct mental representations of future events is still essentially unknown. We suggest that episodic future thoughts consist of transitory patterns of activation over knowledge structures at different levels of specificity, with general knowledge about the personal future (i.e., personal semantic information and anticipated general events) providing a context or frame for retrieving, integrating, and interpreting episodic details. In line with this hypothesis, Study 1 showed that the construction of episodic future thoughts is frequently a protracted generative process in which general personal knowledge is accessed before episodic details. We then explored in more detail the nature of this general personal knowledge and tested the hypothesis that it is mainly organized in terms of personal goals. Study 2 showed that cuing participants with knowledge about personal goals increased the ease of future event production during a fluency task. Study 3 further demonstrated that cuing participants with their personal goals facilitated access to episodic details during the imagination of future events. Taken together, these findings indicate that general personal knowledge and, in particular, knowledge about personal goals plays an important role in the construction of episodic future thoughts.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Association
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Goals
  • Humans
  • Imagination*
  • Individuality
  • Intention*
  • Male
  • Mental Recall*
  • Probability
  • Semantics
  • Thinking*
  • Young Adult