Time Perception

Time Perception Among Navajo American Indians
and Its Relation to Academic Success

Paper presented at the annual meetings of the 119th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, August 4-7, 2011, Washington, DC

(Narrative: Introduction: Method: Discussion: Narrative: References)

 Mark Charles, BA
Steven A. Smith, Ph.D.
Aaron P. Jackson, Ph.D.
Quintina Adolpho, MS
Carrie Fleischer, MA
Brigham Young University


My journey with this study began in the fall of 1989 shortly after I enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles.  Sitting in one of my freshman classes, the professor was reviewing the syllabus with us.  She asked us to specifically note the date of our mid-terms, exams and papers.  She informed us that she expected all work to be completed on time and no excuse would be accepted.  Period. 

            Coming from a multi-racial family (my mother is of Dutch/American heritage and my father is Navajo), I thought I understood well what it meant to live between two worlds.  I attended a private Christian school from first grade through twelfth grade.  I was a good student and had successfully navigated the western educational system that I experienced up to that point.  But I also had experienced “Navajo Time.”  The term “Navajo Time” was used frequently around my community as an off-the-cuff way to explain why events that were hosted, planned or attended by Navajo people always seemed to start late and go long.  It was very similar to the way people used traffic in Los Angeles to explain why they were late to an event.  “Got stuck in traffic” was as frequent of an excuse to explain tardiness in the city, and “I’m running on Navajo time” was used to explain tardiness in and around the Navajo reservation.  However, when I heard my professor’s comments I was taken by surprise, and those words stuck with me all throughout my college career.  I could not recall being in an environment where the deadlines were set so rigidly.  NO excuse would be accepted for turning work in late.  Period.   Those words seemed very empty to me and didn’t make much sense.

            Three years later, I enrolled in a class called the Social Psychology of Higher Education.  College had become challenging for me.  Not just the academics, but also the relationships.  My relationships with fellow students, professors and even student club leaders had all become strained as there was a perception that I was rude and undependable.  I had gained a reputation for being late because, to me, timeliness did not communicate value. Therefore, it was not a high priority.  However, the relational tension it caused bothered me, and I struggled to understand the root of it. 

            One of the assignments in this class was a research paper.  The topic was very broad; we could research anything we wanted as long as it was in regards to higher education and pertained to us personally.  I decided to write my paper on “The Navajo perception of time and how it affects students coming off of the reservation and attending large universities.” 

In writing this paper, the first task I had to tackle was the definitions of the Navajo and Western perceptions of time.  Here is a very brief summary:

Western Perception of time:

1. Linear.

2. Strict starting and ending points.

3. As one moves across this timeline, events and milestones are passed.

4. Once an event is passed, it is complete and cannot be revisited.

5. In this perception of time, life is organized by creating a schedule.

6. Value and importance is communicated by keeping and honoring the schedule.

7. E.g.  If I make plans to meet someone for lunch at 12 PM and do not show up until 12:30, then I owe that person an apology because my tardiness is offensive.  I did not honor our schedule and did not value their time.                 

Navajo Perception of Time:

1. Circular.

2. If an event is passed or missed, then there is not as much reason for concern. The understanding is that the event will usually come back around again.

3. In this perception of time, life is organized by completing tasks or events.

4. Value and importance is communicated not by starting/arriving on time, but by staying until the interaction is over or the task is complete.

5. E.g.  If I make plans to meet someone here on our reservation at noon and do not show up until 1 pm, there is usually no need for me to apologize.  But, once we are talking, if I am constantly looking at my watch or suddenly announce that I need to leave, I have committed an offense. I did not allow the interaction to come to its natural completion.

Even before I had administered any surveys, this project was a benefit to me.  It suddenly made sense why my Western friends, peers, leaders and instructors found me rude.  They were expecting me to value them by being on time.  Instead, I was communicating my value for them by staying until our interactions were over.  They thought I was rude because I was always late.  However, they did not notice that I was almost always the last one to leave an event. I was constantly encouraging and inviting people to stay so we could complete the tasks and interactions we had begun.

This research project ultimately led to more questions than it answered, but it did give me a foundational understanding of some of the key differences between the Western and Navajo time perceptions.  While my research did not conclusively show that my Navajo Perception of Time adversely affected my success in college, just acknowledging the different perceptions of time and understanding which one I tended to follow helped me tremendously.


The current study focuses on two different perceptions of time: linear and cyclical. It is a collaborative effort between Mr. Mark Charles from the Navajo Nation and researchers from Brigham Young University. 

There has been much research and documentation regarding difficulties of Native Americans in college (Steward, 1993).  These difficulties include low rates of attending college, low persistent rates, and overall academic success (Jackson & Smith, 2001; Jackson, Smith, & Hill, 2003; Reddy, 1993; U.S. Department of Education, 1998).  In trying to explain possible reasons for these difficulties among Native Americans in college, sociocultural factors are often suggested (Jackson, Smith, & Hill 2003; Wilder, Jackson, & Smith, 2001).  Wilder, Jackson, and Smith suggest that when “the particular culture of a student varies significantly from the culture of the school system or the workplace, the result can be confusion, misunderstanding, or even hostility” (2001).

Pinxten (1995) suggests that one aspect of culture is the way that one sees and views time.  Linear time is marked by timelines (strict starting and ending points).  Once an event has passed it is over and cannot be revisited.  In this view of time, importance is placed on punctuality and specific events (Crossan, Cunha, Vera, & Cunha, 2005).  Linear time can also be understood as “clock time” (Ancona, Okhuysen, & Perlow, 2001).  Linear time is most related with Western culture (Slife, 1995).  By contrast, cyclical time does not have the same strong emphasis on starting and ending points.  Subsequently less importance is place on punctuality and specific events (Cossan, Cnha, Vera, & Cunha, 2005).  In a cyclical view of time, events repeat themselves over and over, and therefore less concern is placed on missed opportunities, but instead more care is placed in relationships and completing events (Pinxten, 1995).  Cyclical time is usually related with non-Western cultures (Slife, 1995). 

      Given that most college environments could be classified as “Western” and therefore operate on linear time, the current study attempts to explore how adhering to a more culturally traditional sense of time affects the academic achievement of Navajo college students.  This will be accomplished by measuring Navajo students’ degree of adherence to and ownership of the “cyclical” perception of time, and then compare that to the students’ success in college as measured by self-reported GPA, academic self-efficacy, and positive academic behaviors such as turning assignments in on time, keeping up with homework, and preparing for exams.  The hypothesis of this study is that students who adhere to cyclical time will have lower academic achievement.


      This is a replication and continuation of a study done by Mark Charles, B.A.  Mr. Charles is a member of the Navajo Tribe and conducted the study while an undergraduate student at UCLA.  Mr. Charles developed an instrument he believed would measure Navajo tribal members’ adherence to a more traditional, cyclical time perception.  

      This study was conducted in two parts.  In Part I, the researchers administered the original Navajo Time Perception questionnaire (NTP) to a group of Navajo college students.  The researchers conducted a factor analysis of the original Navajo Time Perception questionnaire in order to create a more statistically sound instrument.  In Part II, the researchers administered the new NTP to a second sample of Navajo college students and compared their perception of time to the students’ success in college as measured by self-reported GPA, academic self-efficacy, and positive academic behaviors such as turning assignments in on time, keeping up with homework, and preparing for exams. 


Part I

      The original NTP was administered to students attending two two-year institutions in the southwestern United States.  IRB approval was obtained at the respective colleges, and subjects were contacted through the Native American Centers on both campuses.  For participating in the study subjects were entered into a drawing to receive one of two IPod Shuffles.  Two IPods were offered on both campuses. 

Instrument.  The original NTP purported to measure a Navajo tribal member’s endorsement of a more traditional circular time perception or his/her endorsement of a more Western time perception.  The NTP also included questions on observance of traditional Navajo practices and on study habits.  These items dealing with identification with traditional Navajo culture included: (1) upbringing and exposure to grandparents and extended family; (2) Navajo language acquisition and understanding; (3) participation in traditional cultural events and religious ceremonies; (4) involvement in broader Navajo community functions such as social ceremonies, Chapter  House meetings, weddings, etc.  These areas are included under the assumption that students who more closely identify with traditional Navajo culture will also have a more cyclical perception of time (Pinxten, 1995).

The original NTP consisted of 52 items.  The author’s goal was to create one instrument he could use to measure cultural identity, time perception, and positive academic behaviors.  While the original instrument contained several different scales and types of questions, for the purposes of part one this study, the authors decided to use this same instrument without modification.

Subjects.  Subjects were 108 members of the Navajo Nation, ages 17 to 54 (mean age 35) who attended school at the two-year colleges.  GPA (self-report) ranged from 1.0 to 4.0 (mean GPA 3.08).  95 subjects reported that they were full-blooded Navajo.  13 reported that they had at least one parent who was full-blooded Navajo.  All subjects were raised on the Navajo Nation or in a border town.   There were 59 females and 49 males. 

Procedure.  Prior to taking the NTP, researchers briefly explained the study to each participant, though they were not informed as to what the instrument was measuring.  The subjects then filled out a demographics questionnaire and an informed consent form.  Subjects took the NTP in the student center on one campus and in the Native American Center on another campus. 

            Data analysis.  An exploratory factor analysis was completed on the original NTP. 

Results.  Results suggest four predominant factors with Eigen values greater than two.  Factor one consisted of 10 items dealing with following Navajo traditions.  We named this factor Traditions.  Factor two consisted of six items having to do with positive school behaviors.  We named this factor School Behaviors.  Factor three consisted of three items describing subjects’ adherence to western religious values.  In his original study, the first author believed it would be important to identify Navajos who were more westernized.  Since the present study was designed to examine the relationship between Navajo cultural values and academic achievement, this factor was not included in the new instrument.  The final factor consisted of three questions dealing with time perception.  We named this factor Time Perception.

             Each of the items identified by the factor analysis was graded on a five point likert scale.  Those items dealing with traditions and time perception were ordered from one (more westernized) to five (more traditional).   The items dealing with positive academic behaviors were ordered from one (never) to five (always).  After examining the factor analysis and discussing which factors would be most helpful in the second part of the study, 19 of the original 52 items were retained.               

Part II

            The new 19-item version of the NTP was administered to students attending a four year college in the Southwestern United States.  This institution has a large number of Navajo students attending.  As with the first part of the study, IRB approval was obtained from the college, and potential subjects were contacted through the Native American Center.  For participating in the study subjects were entered into a drawing to receive one of two IPod Shuffles.

Instruments.  In his original study the first author attempted to measure time perception and adherence to Navajo traditions surreptitiously.  After discussing this with the researchers from BYU, it was determined that subjects could know what the authors were attempting to measure without adversely affecting the outcome.  Thus, the first author included a brief description of traditional and western time perception in the revised instrument.  The authors also added one item to the Time Perception factor.  This item asked participants to grade their adherence to western or Navajo time perception.  This was included immediately after the description of the concept. 

A second instrument measuring academic self-efficacy was added to the NTP.  This instrument is the Self in School (SIS) (Smith, 1988; Downs, 2006).   The authors believed that academic self-efficacy would conceivably have some relationship to time perception and/or traditional Navajo values.  The SIS is a 15 likert-type item instrument.  Participants rank their degree of agreement from completely false (one) to completely true (seven) on items such as I have the ability to do well in my schoolwork.  This instrument has been used in several studies with Navajo students (Downs, 2006; Golightly, 2007).  It has consistently positively correlated with items such as high school GPA and SAT scores.  It has good internal consistency with Chronbach alpha scores from .89 to .94.

Subjects.  Subjects were 43 members of the Navajo Nation, ages 18 to 46 (mean age 23) who attended school at the two-year colleges.  GPA (self-report) ranged from 1.0 to 4.0 (mean GPA 3.3).  There were 26 females and 17 males. 

Procedure.  Prior to taking the NTP, researchers briefly explained the study to each participant.  The subjects then filled out a demographics questionnaire and an informed consent form.  Subjects took the NTP in the student center on one campus and in the Native American Center on another campus.

Data analysis.  Both parametric (Pearson) and non-parametric (Spearman’s rho) correlations were conducted on the three factors from the NTP, the SIS, and self-reported GPA.  

Results.  Significant correlations were found between academic self-efficacy and School Behaviors with both the Pearson (r=.675; p<.01) and Spearman’s rho (r=.738; p<.01).  Significant correlations were found between Time Perception and Tradition with both the Pearson (r=.434; p<.01) and Spearman’s rho (r=.397; p<.01).  All other correlations (academic self-efficacy with time perception and tradition; positive school behaviors with time perception and tradition; and GPA with time perception and tradition) were non-significant. 


            The present study had two goals: (1) create a reliable instrument to assess Navajo American Indian’s time perception, and (2) use the instrument to examine the relationship between academic achievement, academic self-efficacy, adherence to Navajo traditions and adherence to Navajo time perception.

            Correlations between traditions and time perception may support the validity of the NTP. However, more research must be done.  Correlations between the SIS and academic behaviors appear to provide some validity for the academic behaviors section of the NTP. Nonetheless, more research must be done. 

            While no significant correlations were found between time perception, GPA, academic self-efficacy, and positive academic behaviors, it may be that a different sample would show some significant correlations.  The students from the institution in the second part of the study have shown good academic achievement in order to get into the school.  It is likely that these students have acculturated to the western way of life demanded by most post-secondary institutions.   

            A future study investigating students who are college drop-outs may show some relationship between Navajo time perception and negative academic outcomes.  Another study that may prove useful is testing students after their first semester in college.  It is at this time that more traditional students may have struggled adapting to the demands of college. 

The three institutions sampled in both parts of this study have each had a higher than average Navajo student population and are located in close proximity to the Navajo reservation.  This context could mean that the institution’s adherence to strict linear time may be somewhat dampened.  Future research investigating students studying at institutions that have reputations for being academically rigorous and that are located a greater distance from the Navajo reservation (200+ miles) may demonstrate a more significant correlation between time perception and academic success.


Over the years I have come to the conclusion that a majority of people are not aware that they have a time perception.  Instead, I have observed that most people think they have a time truth.  Because of this, we tend to judge people according to the values of our perception of time.  If I continually turn work in late or ask for extensions on projects, the first inclination of someone with a Western perception of time is to conclude that I am lazy, undependable or inconsiderate.  Likewise, if someone from another culture visits the Navajo reservation and runs from one event to another, always arriving on time but never completing interactions, our community will conclude that they are rude and uncaring.

Because of this, I have invested significant time and energy in the past several years to help people understand that they have a time perception and not a time truth.  For people, groups or institutions that want to visit or work on our reservation, I describe for them the various aspects of the Navajo perception of time and explain how it is different from the Western perception of time.  I particularly focus on the different ways value and importance is communicated in each time perception.  I also remind them that they are coming to our land and will be among our people. Therefore, they should not expect us to change for their benefit.  Instead, I invite them to embrace the cross-cultural experience and do all they can to adhere to our perception of time. 

For our Navajo students and young people who are preparing to leave our community to attend school or find work off of the reservation, I describe for them the differences between the Navajo and Western perceptions of time.  I try to make them aware that their tendency will be to want to finish a task or an interaction before moving on to what is next.  But I tell them that their bosses, professors and friends will not understand the value they are trying to communicate in this way.  Instead, they will be expected to arrive at events and appointments on time and to do all that they can to maintain and honor the schedule.  I tell them that if they want to be successful off of the reservation, they will need to learn to live by the rules of the Western perception of time.  They should not expect the institutions they are attending or the people they meet to adapt to their Navajo perception of time.

Over the past few years, these conversations have begun to take a very interesting turn.  I have reached out to smaller colleges throughout the Southwestern United States that have higher percentages of Navajo students enrolled, and I have described to them the definitions I am using for the Navajo and Western time perceptions.  Most of them have agreed with me, and then gone on to ask how they could adapt the educational model of their school to better serve the time perception of their Navajo students. 

At first, this question took me off guard.  I had never seriously thought about how the educational system could be adapted to better serve the learning models of the Navajo perception of time and culture.  Throughout my tribe’s history with the United States government, education has always been used as a tool to assimilate our people to the English language and the Western culture and worldview.  However, as this research on time perception continues, I am now pondering how Navajo students can be educated in a way that allows them to retain and utilize the unique characteristics of our language, culture, worldview and even our perception of time.

The world is becoming more and more integrated and assimilated.  Education, television, the internet and the Global Marketplace are bringing people together in ways that were never imagined even 25 years ago.  Unfortunately, as we are being drawn ‘together’ we are also being stripped of many of the things that make us different and unique.  Aspects, such as language, cultural traditions, dress and time perceptions, are being brushed aside in an effort to succeed by assimilating to the majority culture. 

However, I believe that the future leaders of the Navajo people, our country and even the world will not just be those who have successfully assimilated to and navigated through the academic, economic and occupational paths laid before them by the majority culture.  Our future leaders will also have a deep understanding of their own identity and a strong connection to the communities from which they come.  These leaders will know who they are both within, as well as separate from, the Global Marketplace.  They will know how to navigate through it, but will not allow it to define them.  They will understand that time is not a truth, but rather a perception. These leaders who comprise this new assimilated global community will, at their core, communicate and receive value and honor differently (Charles, 2008). 


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