“A Glossary of Psychological Terms Useful for People Trying to Change their Past” by M.J. Pettit

Affect: A precognitive state. A disposition (either positive or negative) towards an object. Humans decide first then rationalize later. Hurtling back in time, you realize this journey may have been a terrible idea.

Attenuation: Focus, goddammit. The task ahead is near impossible. The past broadcasts, but on a noisy channel.

Authenticity: A non-starter. Don’t be yourself when traveling. Sure, it might help in making a few friends, but more likely you will get burnt as a heretic. This shouldn’t prove a problem in postwar Paris with Beauvoir and Sartre spouting fashionable irreverence on the terrace of Les Deux Magots, but prudence remains the best course. Well, as much prudence as you can muster when trying to change the past.

Behavior: Conduct, comportment, demeanor. Not to be confused with character, a person’s inner essence. Behavior is malleable. The human organism adapts to its perceived circumstances. A traveler assumes the behavior of their chosen time.

Choice Architecture: A ingenious way of skirting the Grandfather paradox. One cannot change history directly. Instead, one reframes the decisions, making certain options more palatable than they appeared beforehand (see Preference Reversals). The meddler nudges the past onto a preferred course. Such a strategy preserves free will (in a probabilistic sense), avoiding determinism.

Chronosthesia: Mental time travel. The linchpin of autobiographical memory, the key to the self. The ability to move up and down a personal timeline and string together events into a meaningful sequence. You perform it often. Working and reworking the details of his life as you develop your plan. Dry runs. Things always worked better in your head.

Cocktail Party Effect: The fate of the unattended message. Travel leaves you swimmy. Your mind wanders, forgetting its mission. Lost at a party on the Left Bank, you catch a name spoken in passing. Not quite your own, but similar. It’s his name. The man you traveled back to find.

Delay of Gratification: Stick-to-it-iveness outdoes raw intellect when trying to achieve our goals. Winners play the long game. Seriously, don’t eat the first marshmallow. Keep trying.

Fundamental Attribution Error: People’s tendency to ascribe to internal character the demands of the external situation. The bedrock of modern social psychology (and time travel). In 1953, Paris remains a wreck. A pale shadow of its former glory. But, for a young Irishman, the city signifies a freedom he has sought his entire life. As the city recovers from the wounds of war, it pulls him into its grasp. He follows the path blazed by Joyce, Beckett, and countless other exiles before him. Paris offers him a chance to become someone else. Someone better. A failed experiment in retrospect.

Independent Variable: The intervention, the treatment, the thing manipulated by the experimenter while keeping all other factors constant. We call situations where the experimenter cannot obtain full control quasi-experiments. Such designs are rife with confounds and do not allow for the isolation of the causal mechanism. Interpret the results with extreme caution. “No shit,” you think, after another failed attempt. On the last trip, something you did caused Paris to become a divided city with Soviet and American soldiers patrolling opposite banks of the Seine. That cannot stand. You step back into the machine.

Hindsight Bias: People assume period experts make for the best travelers. Nonsense. Expertise leads one into believing certain outcomes are inevitable, necessary even. Changing the past requires greater openness. Ignorance can be bliss. Ignorance can also be hell. Time’s arrow runs in a single direction. Or does it? People avoid your stare as you walk the arcades of Paris. They look inward. Regret marks every face as they rework decisions made and not made. Indecision accumulates in the lines around their mouths. What would they do to procure the secret you carry? The ability to know the outcome without having to live with the consequences.

Learned Helplessness: Multiple failed attempts to improve the future leave you numb. Hopelessness sets in. Time is a system of unimaginable complexity. Epicycles spinning around epicycles. Travel seemed so simple back home where they bulldoze over the past. A technical problem with an obvious solution. Here memory stalks the streets. Their undead refuse to let go. Each alteration unleashes a worst world. Slow down. Take a deep breath. Time to simplify. Focus on what you can control.

Oedipal Complex: A misunderstanding really. You harbor no desire to kill your father. You wish to save him. Save him from himself. Save him from his past. The task is simple: separate the person you love from the regrets which damaged him, caused so much pain, which drove you apart. Things do not have to end that way. Then again, you are seemingly bent on eliminating the only version of him you knew. Why must things be so complicated? You re-enter the machine.

Reflexivity: The bane of psychology. As a social activity performed by groups of people, the social sciences are subject to the same dynamics as other social activities. Ad infinitum. Avoid thinking through the implications at all costs. Reflexivity leads to relativism or, worse, recursion. Too late, you realize your mistake. Your father didn’t travel to Paris to revel with the poets along the canal. He lied about his time there. Or maybe you misremember the stories he told. Yellowed letters found in the attic record a different tale. He came to find a dying Irene Joliot-Curie, her body already riddled by radium, and join her pioneering time travel experiments. By the time you locate his apartment, he has departed. Looking through the notes he left behind, the similarity between your plans astounds you. He, too, targets his father.

Task-Switching: Humans are cognitively incapable of multitasking (a myth of the self-help industry). At best, we can move between tasks with greater or lesser efficiency. With some trepidation you abandon Paris 1953 and follow him deeper into your family history. Maybe there you can set things right.

Unconditional positive regard: The foundation of a successful therapeutic relationship. In the hospice, your father reworked the events of his life. Lying in bed, too weak to sit up, he traveled back and forth through a myriad of regrets. Events which molded him. Decisions he wished he’d made. And those he hadn’t. He tested the different turns, hoping for a better outcome. So much to undo, so little time. It is only after he is gone that you realize you hardly knew him. For a brief spell, your lives happened to run on parallel tracks, but you remained strangers to another one. A pity. Sorting through his papers, you recognize yourself in the scrawls he left behind. You had so much in common. What if you happened to meet at the same age? You could have been friends.

Wish Fulfillment: At long last, the two of you are on the same page. Working together as a team, you move seamlessly up and down the timeline setting things on their proper course. You ensure the right words get spoken to the right people at just the right moment. Everything goes smooth, without a single hitch. You can rest now.

An aspiration. A delusion. A lie.

Zeigarnik Effect: An incomplete task sticks in the memory while a completed one soon fades. The traveler’s curse.

M. J. Pettit is a full-time academic working at the intersection of history and psychology as well as an occasional writer of short stories. He divides his time between Toronto, Canada, and Manchester, UK, with stopovers in other interesting places. His stories have previously appeared in Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Nature, among other venues. Website: mjpettitwrites.wordpress.com.