Category: Time

Why do we think of the future as being in front? New clues from study of people born blind

GettyImages-811434286.jpgBy Alex Fradera

Where is the future? The tendency in our culture – and most, but not all, others – is to compare the body’s movement through space with its passage through time: ahead are the things we are on our way to encounter. We intuit that the past is linked to the space behind and the future to that in front. But research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General has found that some Western people buck this tendency: those born blind.

Continue reading “Why do we think of the future as being in front? New clues from study of people born blind”

Our growing tendency to “chunk” our experiences could explain why life speeds up

GettyImages-609948680.jpg
Using mindfulness to appreciate the uniqueness of moments could make it less likely that they’ll be swallowed up into a “chunk”

By Emma Young

“Like a ball rolling down a hill, time often seems to pick up momentum, going faster and faster as we get older…,” write the authors of a new paper in Self and Identity that aims to explain the reasons for this phenomenon. Understand it properly, and it might be possible to stop it – because as Mark Landau at the University of Kansas, US, and his colleagues also note: “Perceiving life as rapidly slipping away is psychologically harmful: unpleasant, demotivating, and possibly even hostile to the sense that life is meaningful.”

Continue reading “Our growing tendency to “chunk” our experiences could explain why life speeds up”

New review punctures the myth that now is three seconds long

Three SecondsBy Emma Young

“When you say it’s gonna happen now
When exactly do you mean?”

Ask a psychologist the answer to this question – posed in this case by Morrissey in The Smiths song, How soon is now? – and she might reply “within the next three seconds”.

The idea that “now”, also known as the “subjective present”, is constrained within this time limit has proved popular. But a new evaluation in Psychological Bulletin of dozens of research papers on everything from embraces and reading poetry to tapping along to a beat concludes that there’s no good evidence for it. Our experience of the present cannot, it seems, be so strictly defined.

Continue reading “New review punctures the myth that now is three seconds long”

This mental quirk could explain why you’re always running late

young businessman running in a city streetBy Christian Jarrett

We all have routes that are part of our daily lives, whether it’s the way to the local convenience store, school or the office. How does this deep familiarity affect the way our brains represent the space and our ability to move through it?

Based in part on what we’ve learned from studies of so-called “grid cells” in rats’ brains, Anna Jafarpour at the University of California, Berkeley and Hugo Spiers at University College London predicted that greater familiarity with an area would lead us to overestimate its physical extent – in essence, they thought a more detailed neural representation would make that space seem larger. In turn, they predicted that same detail would make us more likely to exaggerate the walking time to destinations reached through that familiar space.

In fact, while their new findings published in Hippocampus suggest spatial familiarity does indeed stretch our perception of the magnitude of physical distance, it has the opposite effect on our judgments of travel times through that space – that is, we underestimate how long it will take us to travel through highly familiar routes. It’s a mental quirk that might just provide us with a new excuse for why we’re so often running late.  Continue reading “This mental quirk could explain why you’re always running late”

People who prioritise time over money are happier

A lot of has been written about how focusing too much on materialistic ambitions, at the expense of relationships and experiences, can leave us miserable and unfulfilled. In a new paper published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, a team of psychologists at the University of British Columbia in Canada argue that there’s another important distinction to be made – between how much we prioritise time versus money. Those who favour time tend to be happier, possibly because this frees them to enjoy pleasurable and meaningful activities, although this has yet to be established.

The researchers led by Ashley Whillans first devised a quick and simple way to measure this difference in people. They asked just over 100 students to say whether they prioritised having more time or having more money, and to help them appreciate the distinction the researchers presented them with vignettes of two people – one who prioritises time:

Tina (male names were used for male participants) values her time more than her money. She is willing to sacrifice her money to have more time. For example, Tina would rather work fewer hours and make less money, than work more hours and make more money.

And one who prioritises money:

Maggie values her money more than her time. She is willing to sacrifice her time to have more money. For example, Maggie would rather work more hours and make more money, than work fewer hours and have more time.

The students answered this question twice, three months apart and their two choices were highly consistent, which supports the idea that people’s prioritisation of time versus money is a stable trait.

In several further studies involving thousands more students and adult members of the general public in Canada and the US, Whillans and her colleagues showed that people’s answer to this one simple question correlated with their choices over various fictional scenarios, such as: whether they wanted to apply for a hypothetical higher salary/longer hours job or a lower salary/shorter hours alternative; whether they’d prefer a more expensive apartment with a shorter commute, or a cheaper alternative (to save money) and make a longer commute; and whether they actually chose a smaller cash reward for taking part in the study, versus a larger value reward token toward a time-saving service (such as a cleaner).

What’s more, across the studies, people who said they prioritised time tended to report being happier. This was true based on various ways of measuring happiness and wellbeing, and the association held even after holding constant many other factors, such as people’s salary, education, hours of work and age and gender. The researchers also measured people’s materialism and the association between happiness and favouring time over money remained after taking this into account.

The researchers said that this relationship between prioritising time and being happier was “small but robust” – about half the size of the impact on happiness of things like being married and having more wealth. In an example of exemplary scholarship, the researchers make clear every factor they measured, every participant who was excluded and why, and the recruitment stopping rule for each study (i.e. how it was decided when to stop recruiting more participants). And perhaps most important, all their data is freely accessible via the Open Science initiative.

As so often, it’s worth remembering that this data was only recorded at a single point in the lives of the participants, so it’s not yet been established that having more a time-centric orientation versus money-centric actually causes greater happiness – as the researchers acknowledge, it’s possible that being happier allows people to see the value in saving time to do fun things. As well as longitudinal research (that follows people’s priorities and happiness over time), future studies could also establish how people’s time vs. money priorities change in response to important life events such as having children or retirement (the current data suggest that older people tend to favour time), and whether it’s possible to deliberately change one’s orientation.

“Although causality cannot be inferred,” the researchers concluded, “these data point to the possibility that valuing time over money is a stable preference that may provide one path to greater happiness.”

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Whillans, A., Weidman, A., & Dunn, E. (2016). Valuing Time Over Money Is Associated With Greater Happiness Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550615623842

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

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Our jumpiness at nighttime is not just because it’s dark

When something goes bump in the night, most of us are little jumpier than we would be in the day. But is that just because it’s dark, or is it more to do with our bodies and brains switching to a vigilant nocturnal mode?

Yadan Li and her colleagues have attempted to disentangle the influences of darkness and nighttime. They recruited 120 young women to complete a computer task in a windowless cubicle, which involved them looking at neutral pictures (e.g. nature scenes), scary pictures (e.g. spiders; a person being attacked), and listening to scary sounds (e.g. screams) and neutral sounds (e.g. bird song).

The women were split into four groups: some of them completed the task in the day-time with bright lights on; some in the day-time in darkness; others at night-time with a dim light on; and others at night-time in complete darkness (although presumably the computer screen created some light).

The women who completed the task at nighttime said they found the scary pictures and sounds more scary (than the women tested in the day-time), and this was true regardless of whether they were tested in darkness or light. Moreover, their extra jumpiness was confirmed by recordings taken of their heart-rate and perspiration.

In contrast, the time of testing made no difference to the women’s responses to the neutral pictures and sounds. Also, the lighting levels, whether in the day-time or at nighttime, made no difference to the women’s reactions to the neutral or scary stimuli.

In other words, the findings appear to suggest that we’re more sensitive to threats at nighttime because it’s the night, not because it’s dark. This raises the possibility that biological factors associated with our circadian rhythm affect our fear-sensitivity, although it’s plausible that cultural factors are involved, in that we’ve learned to be more vigilant at night.

The day-time testing took place at 8.00am and the nighttime testing at 8.00pm (in February, so it was dark outside) – it remains to be seen whether and how the findings might vary at different times of day and night. We also don’t know if the same findings would apply to male participants, or participants from different cultures or stages of life (the study was conducted in China where the authors are based, and the student participants had an average age of 22 years).

Li and her colleagues hope their findings will inspire other researchers to explore this topic. “[T]his study is merely a first step in understanding the underlying mechanisms involved in fear-related information processing and has implications for the underlying psychopathology of relevant phobias and anxiety disorders [such as nighttime panic attacks],” they said.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Li, Y., Ma, W., Kang, Q., Qiao, L., Tang, D., Qiu, J., Zhang, Q., & Li, H. (2015). Night or darkness, which intensifies the feeling of fear? International Journal of Psychophysiology DOI: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2015.04.021

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

Why you’re particularly likely to run your first marathon when your age ends in a "9"

When we look at our lives, we tend to break them up into chapters, rather like the seasons of a TV box set. Potential dividers come in many forms, including the dawn of a new year, or the start of a new job. But if those events act as a marker between episodes, it is the decades of our lives that represent the more profound end of one series or season and the start of the next.

According to the psychologists Adam Alter and Hal Hershfield, when we’re on the cusp of one of these boundaries – in other words, when our age ends in a “9”, such as 29, 39, 49 or 59 – we are particularly prone to reflect on the meaning of our lives. If we don’t like what we see, their new results suggest we take drastic action, either fleeing life’s emptiness, or setting ourselves new goals.

The pair began by looking at data from the World Values Survey. Based on answers from 42,063 adults across 100 nations, they found that people with an age ending in 9 (the researchers call these people “9-enders”) were more likely than people of other ages to say that they spent time thinking about the meaning and purpose of their lives.

In another study, participants prompted to imagine and write about how they would feel the night before entering a new decade, tended to say they would think about the meaning of their life more than did other participants who’d been prompted to write about the night before their next birthday, or to write about tomorrow.

At the dawn of a new decade, how does this focus on life’s meaning affect our behaviour? Alter and Hershfield say that for some people it can lead to “maladaptive behaviours”. They looked at data from an online dating website that caters for people who are seeking extramarital affairs. Among over 8 million male users of the site, 9-enders were over-represented by 17.88 per cent relative to what you’d expect if participation were randomly distributed by age. The same was true, though to a lesser extent, for female users of the site.

For some people, the self-reflection triggered by the prospect of entering a new decade is more than they can bear. Alter and Hershfield also examined suicide data collected between 2000 and 2011 by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They found that 9-enders take their own lives with a greater frequency than people whose ages end in any other digit.

It seems the “crisis of meaning” triggered by the prospect of a new decade can also lead people to set themselves new goals. When the researchers looked at data on the Athlinks website, they found that among 500 first-time marathon runners, 9-enders were over-represented by 48 per cent. The same site also contained evidence of 9-enders investing greater effort into their training and performance. Focusing on data from runners in their twenties, thirties and early forties who’d run a marathon at the end of a decade and also in the preceding and following two years, the researchers found that people achieved better times, by an average of 2.3 per cent, when they were aged 29 or 39 than when they were one or two years younger.

The researchers said there’s a growing literature that suggests “although people age continually, the passage of time is more likely to influence their thoughts and actions at some ages than others.” They added: “Here we find that people are significantly more likely to consider whether their lives are meaningful as they approach the start of a new decade.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Alter, A.L., & Hershfield, H.E. (2014). People search for meaning when they approach a new decade in chronological age PNAS

–further reading–
The findings of this study have been challenged by Erik Larsen
The taste for competition peaks at age 50
The boxed set approach to setting goals

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

Back to the future – Psychologists investigate why some people see the future as being behind them

Speakers of English and many other languages refer to the future as being in front, and the past behind (e.g. “I look forward to seeing you”). This manner of thinking and speaking is so entrenched, we rarely pause to consider why we do it. One influential and intuitive explanation is that humans have an obvious front (the way our heads face), which combined with our tendency to think about time in terms of space, leads us to see ourselves moving forwards into the future, or the future coming towards us. A problem with this account is that there exist cultures and languages – such as the Andean language Aymara – that think and speak of the future as being behind them (and the past in front).

This leads to the proposition that perhaps people’s sense of the location of the past and future is somehow tied to their culture’s linguistic convention. Not so. In a new paper, Juanma de la Fuente and colleagues investigate Moroccan Arabic speakers – these people refer in their language to the future being in front of them (and the past behind), yet in their hand gestures they convey the opposite temporal arrangement. Clearly the ways we speak and think about time can dissociate. Still unanswered then is what leads people to differ in where they locate the past and future.

In the first of several experiments, de la Fuente’s team presented Moroccan Arabic speakers (most were students at the Abdelmalek Essaadi University in Tetouan) and Spanish speakers (students at the University of Granada) with a diagram featuring a human face with one box in front of it, and one behind.  The participants were told that an object had been picked up by the person in the diagram yesterday, or was to be picked up by them tomorrow. The participants’ task in each case was to indicate which box the object was located in.

This test confirmed that, despite speaking of the future as being in front of them, the majority of Moroccan Arabic speakers think of it as being behind. Around 85 per cent of them located tomorrow’s object behind the person in the diagram, compared with just over 10 per cent of the Spanish speakers. De la Fuente’s group think the reason has to do with temporal focus. Their theory – “the temporal-focus hypothesis” – is that people and cultures who focus more on the past tend to locate it in front.

This argument was supported by several further investigations. A “temporal focus questionnaire” (example items included “The young people must preserve tradition” and “Technological advances are good for society”) confirmed that Moroccan Arabic speakers display a greater focus on the past, as compared with Spanish speakers. Within a group of young and old Spanish speakers, meanwhile, the older participants had a greater focus on the past and they more often located the past in front (on a diagram). Among another group of Spanish speakers, those people who were more focused on the past also tended to locate the past in front. Finally, when the researchers primed Spanish speakers to think about their past (by having them write about their childhoods), they were subsequently far more likely to locate the past in front of them (and the future behind).

The researchers said they’d demonstrated “a previously unexplored cross-cultural difference in spatial conceptions of time” and that they’d validated “a new principle by which culture-specific habits of temporal thinking can arise: the temporal-focus hypothesis.”
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ResearchBlogging.orgde la Fuente J, Santiago J, Román A, Dumitrache C, & Casasanto D (2014). When You Think About It, Your Past Is in Front of You: How Culture Shapes Spatial Conceptions of Time. Psychological science PMID: 25052830

–further reading–
The surprising links between anger and time perception

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

The scourge of meeting late-comers

Tardiness at meetings is one of the biggest unexplored issues in work-place behaviour, according to a team of researchers in the USA. Steven Rogelberg and his colleagues attempted to estimate the base rate of meeting lateness via a survey of 195 employees across South-eastern USA, reporting on over 300 meetings. Participants admitted arriving late an average of 5 per cent of the time. Multiply by the number of attendees at a typical meeting (the average in this sample was 8) and this makes the odds of a single late-comer high and helps explain the finding that 37 per cent of meetings on average started late.

Less satisfied employees, the less conscientious, younger employees, and those with a dislike for meetings, all tended to report being late more often. Job level was not related to (self-confessed) tardiness.

Does it matter if a person arrives late? The researchers said it has a negative impact on both the late comer, who is often judged to be rude, and the rest of the team. Most participants reported experiencing negative feelings when someone shows up late, including frustration, feeling disrespected and upset. This is bad news, the researchers said, because “negative mood states can negatively impact performance.” If you consider that an estimated 11 million meetings occur in the USA each day, and that $37 billion is lost annually thanks to unproductive meetings – the role of meeting lateness could be massive.

Part of the problem is that people vary in their definition of lateness. In another study, Rogelberg’s team surveyed 665 international participants (average age 37) via StudyResponse.Com with an open-ended  question about their understanding of meeting lateness.

Just over a fifth of the sample defined lateness as arriving after the scheduled start time (which was the objective definition used in the survey into the base rate of lateness). Another fifth defined lateness as a certain fixed time after the scheduled start – in other words, they were allowing for a “grace” period, varying from a few minutes to more than ten minutes. Thirty-two per cent defined lateness as arrival after the meeting had actually got underway.  Some (6 per cent) defined lateness simply as “keeping others waiting”, or “interrupting the flow” (5 per cent). Finally, a minority (3 per cent) saw lateness in terms of whether a person was “ready to go” once the meeting had started.

The participants were also presented with a range of set scenarios and asked if these were an incidence of lateness. Although most people considered arrival five minutes after the scheduled start as lateness, responses here also showed how much social factors come into play. For instance, far fewer people said they would consider themselves late if they arrived five minutes after the scheduled start time, but other people had yet to arrive and those already there were still chit-chatting.

The study has some obvious weaknesses, including a reliance on memory and self-report, and the emphasis on Western attitudes to time.

“In light of the frequency, consequences, and conceptual complexity of meeting lateness, along with the dearth of extant research on the topic, it is a phenomenon primed for further study,” the researchers said. “This study was an attempt to energise such research as the potential appears vast.”

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Rogelberg, S., Scott, C., Agypt, B., Williams, J., Kello, J., McCausland, T., and Olien, J. (2013). Lateness to meetings: Examination of an unexplored temporal phenomenon European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 1-19 DOI: 10.1080/1359432X.2012.745988

–Further reading–
Towards healthier meetings (feature article from The Psychologist).

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

Time travel study shows my years take up more space than yours

We think about time in terms of space, as revealed in the way we talk about it (“looking ahead to our future”; “looking back at our past”) and in the results from psychology experiments. For instance, people from countries that write right-to-left find it easier to associate future events with the right-hand side of space. This begs the question – how much space do we think time takes up, and is it always constant, or does it vary with how richly we represent particular episodes?

Brittany Christian and her colleagues have explored this question with a pair of fascinating studies. The first involved 60 participants (aged 18 to 32 years) marking the position of various birthdays on a 36cm horizontal line. The middle of the line was marked as “now”. Some participants were asked to draw a mark to show the position of their 8th and 9th birthdays, their previous and next birthdays (relative to now), and their 58th and 59th birthdays, representing past, present and future periods of time, respectively. Other participants did the same for the equivalent birthdays of a best friend; others did it for a stranger who shared the same birth date as them.

The key result here was that participants indicating their own birthdays tended to leave a larger gap between their previous and next birthdays, as compared with participants who marked the birthdays of a best friend. In turn, those marking the birthdays of a best friend left a larger gap between previous and next birthdays than did participants who marked the birthday positions of a stranger. No contrasts emerged for gaps between birthdays in the further past or future (8th and 9th or 58th and 59th), perhaps because we represent such distant time more generically. The main result suggests that the more richly we encode past and future events in our minds, the more physical space we allocate to our mental representation of those periods.

A second study was similar but this time 63 participants (aged 18 to 32) controlled their passage backwards or forwards through time, an experience that was created using the optic flow of white dots on a computer screen. The contraction of the dots towards the centre creates the sensation of moving backwards, the expansion of dots outwards gives the feeling of travelling forwards. Using a keypad to control their motion, the participants were asked to move forward or backwards through time until they reached various birthdays up to ten years in the past or future. As in the first study, they did this either for their own birthdays, the birthdays of a friend, or a stranger.

Participants chose to travel through more space to reach birthday events in their own lives, compared with the space they travelled when journeying towards a friend’s same birthdays. Participants traversed the least amount of space to reach those birthday dates in the life of a stranger. These differences were true for past events and future events, and they held across the full span of time that was investigated (i.e. a birthday up to ten years in the past or future).

Christian and her colleagues said their finding was consistent with construal level theory: “more space is allocated to events that feature self-relevant and episodically rich (i.e. more concrete) mental representations.” Future research is needed to see if other factors also affect the amount of space allocated to temporal representations, such as factual knowledge or emotional salience. Would we allocate more space to time in the life of someone who we like but don’t know well, or to someone we know well, but don’t like?

The researchers said the “behavioural implications of these findings remains an important challenge for future”. It’s speculative for now, but they surmised that their results could help make sense of the planning fallacy – our tendency to underestimate how long things will take us, compared with others. The fact that we represent our own time with more space could tempt us to feel like we can get more done in a given period.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Christian BM, Miles LK, and Macrae CN (2012). Your space or mine? Mapping self in time. PloS one, 7 (11) PMID: 23166617

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