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.
Hauser, 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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