The surprising links between anger and time perception

The way we think about abstract concepts like time is grounded in physical metaphors. For example, we talk about re-arranged events being moved from one day to another, as if through space. Similarly, there is a metaphorical, embodied aspect to our emotions – fear is associated with physical withdrawal, for example, whilst anger is associated with approach and confrontation. An intriguing new study shows that this shared way of thinking about time and emotion can lead to some surprising effects.

David Hauser and colleagues first showed that people with an angrier temperament are more likely to think of themselves as moving through time, than to think of time as moving towards them. You can test this on yourself by considering which day of the week a meeting has changed to, if it was originally planned for Wednesday but has been moved forward two days. If you think it’s now changed to Friday, then you’re someone who thinks of themselves as moving through time, whilst if you think the meeting is now on Monday, then you’re more passive, and you think about time passing you by.

In a second study, Hauser’s team asked 62 student participants a version of this question but they made it so the re-arranged event was either anger-provoking or neutral. On average, more students presented with the angry version said the event had been moved to Friday (as if they themselves were moving through time) than students presented with the neutral version. Moreover, the angry-version students were more likely (than the neutral students) to say that they felt as though they were approaching the event, rather than that the event was approaching them. In other words, it seems that angry thoughts can change the way we think about time.

A final study turned this on its head and showed that thinking about moving through time can induce anger. The researchers presented 87 students with a computer screen flat on a desk, facing the ceiling. On it were the days of the week, in a vertical line with Saturday at the top, then Friday, Thursday, all the way down to Sunday at the bottom, nearest the participant. Commands were given that either provoked thoughts about moving through time, away from the participant (e.g. a meeting has moved forward two days from Sunday to Wednesday – please highlight the new day on the screen), or thoughts about time moving towards the participant (e.g. a shift down the screen, towards the participant from Wednesday to Sunday). Participants primed to think about their movement through time subsequently rated themselves as feeling angrier than participants in the “time moving towards them” condition.

“These studies support theories of embodied cognition by showing that abstract concepts that share a perceptual domain can influence each other in a novel but predictable manner,” the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgHauser, D., Carter, M., & Meier, B. (2009). Mellow Monday and furious Friday: The approach-related link between anger and time representation. Cognition & Emotion, 23 (6), 1166-1180 DOI: 10.1080/02699930802358424

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Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

35 thoughts on “The surprising links between anger and time perception”

  1. Damn, this was good food for thought. It looks like I'm more anger-oriented based on your test. I'm going to run that rearranged meeting test on people I know and see what response I get.

  2. “You can test this on yourself by considering which day of the week a meeting has changed to, if it was originally planned for Wednesday but has been moved forward two days. If you think it's now changed to Friday, then you're someone who thinks of themselves as moving through time, whilst if you think the meeting is now on Monday, then you're more passive, and you think about time passing you by.”

    I question the generalization of personality traits from this particular turn of phrase.

    …speaking of anger-provoking events, what conceivable reason is there for disabling the Blockquote tag in a blog?!

  3. I'd venture that the anger simply comes from people who “move through time” being fully aware that their interpretation is in the minority.

    These people have always had to translate the common office-expressions, which is a chore (and therefore “anger” inducing).

    Their anger response is a response to what they perceive as the culture's erroneous phrasings, not an indication that thinking of moving through time is anger-producing!

  4. “If you think it's now changed to Friday, then you're someone who thinks of themselves as moving through time, whilst if you think the meeting is no on Monday, then you're more passive, and you think about time passing you by.”

    My first impression is that this is a silly generalization. I test as “angrier” by this litmus, but I'm not an angry person. Besides, if you think in terms of a timeline moving left-to-right (just as we read), it makes total sense for “forward” to mean 2 days later instead of 2 days before the original date.

    On top of this, the entire article provides absolutely no statistics from the studies at all. What were the correlation coefficients for angriness/passiveness with the various tests? How many participants in the study? For a result to be interesting, I need a bit more information than “people tended more toward one way than the other when they did this certain thing”.. that's pretty vague.

  5. I wonder why they characterize “moving through time” as angry instead of active. Active/passive makes more sense than angry/passive. What sort of questions were they asking? I test “angry” but I don't think that I am.

  6. In addition to the above calls for clarification – please clarify one moving through time vs. time passing one by…

  7. But would anybody say that the meeting was knocked back a day if it were moved to Tuesday?

  8. The observation was that people who were more angry were more likely to pick Friday. NOT that people who picked Friday were more likely to be angry.

    No need to take it personally.

  9. Now I know why I hate calendars.

    “Moving” (actively) through time can happen only if you (want to) feel in control of what happens in the future (or, rather, what is supposed to happen). Being in control of (having a mastery over) time is by itself a state of implicit conflict – producing (an implicit) anger.

    That's how I feel about time planning (control over destiny… or whatever) – trying to play God makes us angry. However, I don't say that we have to try to always avoid anger (playing God).

  10. Thanks for all your comments. I've added some detail about numbers of participants for the second and third experiments. The first experiment had 149 participants.

  11. Interesting how all the people who tested angry are angry about being labelled angry.

    Personally, moving a meeting “forward” means the same as moving it “up” – it happens earlier.

  12. On a side note… aren't most people annoyed when meetings are moved to a Friday? Just sayin'…

  13. Ok it took a while for me to figure out how anything “moved forward” would end up on Monday from a Wednesday meeting until I realized that someone could mean “moved up” to Monday.

    This was made more difficult by the fact that today IS wednesday (when I'm answering) so it also was affected by picturing the request for the change in present tense. However, ultimately I work in IT – we push things out, and the word “forward” would always culturally be looked at as moving things later or further or longer instead of earlier.

    If you pushed back an implementation it would also move forward. Pushing back a deadline moves it out. If you release early you're moving it up. I have a feeling that the responses might be work-culture based since my tax accountant husband immediately saw both sides and assumed Monday anyway. Lawyers apparently “Move meetings forward” frequently.

    I am willing to assume that people who are involved with technology are generally angrier, but I also promise you if you think I'm angry about the Friday date change, wait until you see how pissed I am when you tell me no, you really meant I had two fewer days to prepare!

  14. cool… I always thought “forward” meant sooner. I have been “corrected” by people who say that it means later (and they always seemed really angry about it). They're gonna be pissed when I show them this!

  15. Actually it shows poor communication skills. Anyone “moving a meeting forward two days” should state the date it has been moved to and why! That's where the anger part comes in-the posting by Drinne (related tosocio-cultural norms/environment) shows the weakness of the assumption that time movement perception by itself conditions emotional response to changes.
    As for turning the study on its head by presenting time on a flat screen in a single line format; clever, but try it on Asian students accustomed to viewing and reading text in a straight line up-down format-you will likely get an entirely different result I bet.

  16. I tend to swing between the two. When I'm feeling unmotivated then forward is monday. I sit on my backside and time washes over me. No control, just sit back and enjoy the ride, daydream and theorize. But when I'm on top of things and motivated, I'm bossing people around, angrier, in control, get things done rather than think and plan, and forward is Friday. That's my 2c.

  17. I always imagine time as a person facing me. If that person were to move forward, they would be closer.

    To me, time is independent, like another person. I suppose that means I think it's passing me…but for me, it feel more about acceptance. There are just some things outside of human control.

  18. I love that nearly everyone who post about having a problem with this article tests as “angrier”, and they're angry about that, because the test is flawed and over generalized, and this makes them angry, which is all the more reason that some evidence is needed for this silly article, which is angering, because they're not angry people.

    I think we're got all the proof we need.

  19. I think the “study” is utterly laughable. I'm not angry, I'm amused!

    Moreover, I think it's nothing but an argument for precision in speech. The meeting has been “delayed”, or “rescheduled for earlier”. In fact,
    the study seems almost entirely about semantics.

  20. The thing that makes me angry is that there are no dates anywhere on this page. I can't know if these comments were posted today or five years ago!

  21. I'm confused as to why anyone would think that a meeting scheduled for a Wednesday which is moved forward 2 days could wind up being on a Monday. If it was moved forward one day, they would think it was on Friday? And what would you say to them to tell them ithad been moved to Thursday? That it was moved forward 0 days? This makes no sense to me.

  22. “If you pushed back an implementation it would also move forward.”

    Did you seriously just say that “back” is “forward”?

    If moving something back means delaying it, it should seem natural to think that moving it forward means shortening the timeline.

  23. To comment on Drinne's post above, I work in IT and I thought “moving forward” meant moving up, hence the meeting was on Monday. To me drawing correlations between time, language, and profession is an oversight. It's certainly a hypothesis that would be interesting to test, but not one we should jump to conclusions about. Another possibility is that there's a spurious mediator variable relating time and anger.

  24. Time operates independent of me or anyone. Time is abstract. There is the present and then there is the past and future. Language and definitions allows us to discuss time regardless of our viewpoint.

    Forward means to advance. I can not move time, but I can move forward a meeting. Common sense tells us that if we advance forward to “anything”, we will meet it sooner.

    Thus a meeting moved forward as in this example will occur on Monday regardless of my typical disposition.

    I do not move through time. A clock hand advances, the earth continues to revolve, and my biological clock continues. We use time as a convience so that we can all meet at the same day for a meeting.

  25. Wow, that's really interesting. When I think of events that have happened or that will happen I always visualize where the date is in the year and see myself moving towards it (if it's something that's going to happen), or has having moved away from it (if it has happened). I visualize a year as a clock, with December at the top, June at the bottom, September in the 3:00 position and March in the 9:00 position (for some reason my year goes counter-clockwise). I visualize weeks differently, with Saturday and Sunday beside each other at the top (Saturday is on the right) and the weekdays on an arc below them with Monday at the left and Friday at the right, it all looks like a capital 'D' turned on its side. I find that compared to most people I have a good chronological memory for things that have happened, maybe because whenever I think of them I see them on the clock, so I know where they are in relation to other events.

  26. sounds like you are angry – I think you ar an angry person- I bet you are getting angry just reading this.

  27. Fascinating – I listened to a science podcast last night which posed this very question. I don't think 'Friday' people are, by default, angry. I think that different emotional states affect our perception of time

  28. there are two dominant spatial metaphors: the ego-moving metaphor (Friday people), in which we are moving toward the future (e.g., “I’m coming up on my 40th birthday”), and the time-moving metaphor (Monday people), in which we are stationary while time moves towards us (e.g., “My 40th birthday is fast approaching”).

  29. Time like Space like the Universe is an illusion. I am currently halfway through Julian Barbours The End of Time. Barbour an Oxford physicist and philosopher also argues that motion does not exist either. The only thing that does exist is Mind of which I argue that there is only one!Anymore than one is a violation of Occam's Razor that is Panpsychism for you, which reminds me I must read Panpsychism in the West again.

  30. Now, this makes perfect sense to me.

    I've been trying to look up what “through time” and- and I can't even find the other one. But the idea that there is a future event and I am moving toward it, does sound more aggressive. I think it's good to be aggressive (not necessarily angry; aggressive means “moving toward”, taking initiative, etc. Anger implies both aggression and displeasure.)

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