Category: Time

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.”


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.”

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.”


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.


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.

"The end of history illusion" illusion

An intriguing study was published in Science recently with the eye-catching title “The End of History Illusion”. It spawned plentiful uncritical media coverage, including the You Won’t Stay The Same article in the NYT, and already the effect has its own Wikipedia entry. But does it really exist or has hype and stylish presentation generated an illusory illusion?

Jordi Quoidbach, Dan Gilbert and Timothy Wilson claimed to have shown that people of all ages underestimate how much their personalities, preferences and values will change in the future. Ideally the psychologists would have asked people to predict the amount they’d change, and then followed them up later to compare the actual change with the prediction. They didn’t do that.

Instead, their favoured approach was to survey over 7,000 people aged 18 to 68 and to ask some of them – “the reporters” – to recall their personality ten years ago, using a personality questionnaire, and to ask others – “the predictors” to estimate their expected personality ten years hence. All participants also answered questions about their current personality. The key contrast was the amount of difference between recalled vs. current personality (documented by reporters) and the amount of difference between predicted and current personality (documented by the predictors). Across every decade of life, the former was much larger. People thought their personality had changed more than they thought it would change.

But there are some serious problems here. First off, there’s no actual data on real change. How do we know this is a delusion of prediction? Perhaps the reporters are wrong about how much they’ve changed. Quoidbach’s team realised this so they looked at data from a separate longitudinal study that really had followed people over time (once in 95-96 and again in 04-06), allowing examination of actual personality change.

Unfortunately, this MacArthur Foundation Survey of MidLife Development in the United States (MIDUS) used a completely different measure of personality. “Direct comparison of the data was not possible,” Quoidbach et al confessed. Nonetheless, after comparing the amount of personality change in the MIDUS survey with amount of change estimated by reporters in their own study, the researchers said the change was “almost identical”, and “substantially larger” than the change predicted by the predictors in their study.

But there’s another serious issue with the new research, which was highlighted in a recent blog post: that is, the predictors might well have believed that their personality will change, but they didn’t know which direction it will change in. Take extraversion. Perhaps they will become more shy, perhaps more gregarious? Without knowing the direction of change, the most accurate prediction is to report no change in extraversion from their current score.

Quoidbach’s group hinted at this problem by acknowledging that participants may not “feel confident predicting specific changes”. To overcome this, they asked over a thousand people to answer a non-specific question, estimating how much they felt they’d changed as a person, or how much they would change. It doesn’t entirely deal with the direction of change issue, but again, “reporters” estimated more change than “predictors” predicted.

Yet another survey with thousands more participants asked them to recall or predict changes in their values over ten years – things like hedonism and security. Again, people reported more change in their values than they predicted. Recalled change was more modest in older participants, but again the difference in recall and prediction occurred at every decade. However, this survey has the same problems as before – the issues of memory distortion and predicting bi-directional change – and in this case they went unaddressed.

Gathering yet more data, the researchers surveyed thousands of people about their preferences in the past compared with now, and asked others about their likely preferences in the future, compared with now – things like favoured holidays, taste in music and food. The idea of this study was to eliminate memory bias. Quoidbach et al reasoned that people have an accurate sense of their past preferences, although they didn’t reference any data to support this claim. People recalling the past again appeared to have changed more than was anticipated by those looking ahead.

A final, far smaller study attempted to address the practical implications of our failure to anticipate how much we will change in the future. One hundred and seventy adults were split in two groups. One stated their current favourite band and said how much they’d pay to see them in ten years. The other group reported their favourite band ten years ago and said how much they’d pay to see them today. There was a big difference – those looking ahead said they’d pay 61 per cent more to see their current favourite band, as compared with the price the retrospective group said they’d pay to see their former favourite band today. “Participants substantially overpaid for a further opportunity to indulge a current preference,” the researchers said.

But was this a fair comparison? The retrospective group know things about their former favourite band that the future group couldn’t possibly know about their current favourite band. For example, perhaps members of the retrospective group didn’t like their chosen band’s follow-up albums, perhaps they already saw them in concert many times over the last ten years. Maybe the future group were optimistic about the future creative output of their current favourite band. In short, there are so many other factors at play here, besides participants’ beliefs about the stability of their own preferences.

Convinced by their own demonstrations of the End of History Illusion, Quoidbach et al speculated about the possible causes. One explanation, they suggested, is that the effect is a manifestation of our gilded view of ourselves: “most people believe that their personalities are attractive ….,” the researchers wrote, “having reached that exalted state, they may be reluctant to entertain the possibility of change.” But this explanation seems to ignore the self-doubt and pessimism that blights many people’s lives. Quoidbach’s other proposal is that the End of History Illusion is a manifestation of the fluency heuristic – because it’s tricky to imagine change in the future, we infer that change is unlikely.

These speculations are premature. It would be easier to believe in the End of History of Illusion if there was data on actual change, rather than a reliance on participants’ memories of themselves in the past. Even if the effect is real, it’s also not clear if this is a general bias about the future that extends beyond our beliefs about ourselves. What predictions would we make about the future change of other people? Or about human culture in general? Here’s one thing that surely won’t change – slick psychology papers with eye-catching titles getting lots of attention.


Quoidbach J, Gilbert DT, and Wilson TD (2013). The end of history illusion. Science (New York, N.Y.), 339 (6115), 96-8 PMID: 23288539 

[thanks <a href="”>Thom Baguley for help with understanding some of the methodological issues]

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

Tipping is more prevalent in countries that are more corrupt

“I don’t tip because society says I have to. Alright, I tip when somebody really deserves a tip. If they put forth an effort, I’ll give them something extra. But I mean, this tipping automatically, that’s for the birds.” Mr Pink in Reservoir Dogs. 

Mr Pink’s approach to tipping is that it should be a reward for past good service. Another way to view tipping is as a payment to ensure superior service in the future. It’s this latter, future-oriented motivation for tipping that Magnus Torfason and his colleagues say explains their curious observation.

Using data on tipping behaviour in 32 countries (collected from The International Guide to Tipping) and comparing this against the Corruption Perception Index, the researchers found that rates of corruption are higher in countries that tip more (the correlation was .6 were 1 would be a perfect match). This may strike some as odd – tipping is often seen as altruistic, whereas corruption is immoral. Yet, the researchers propose that tipping to ensure future good service is comparable to a bribe and this could explain the puzzling association.

To test these ideas further, Torfason’s team focused on two countries with similar rates of tipping, but different rates of corruption – India (with high tipping and high corruption) and Canada (high tipping, low corruption). A survey of 95 Canadians and 157 Indians revealed that the Indians were more likely than Canadians to say they tipped as a way to ensure good service in the future, and this motivation was correlated with their more positive attitudes towards bribery.

In a final study, the researchers primed 40 US undergrads with either a future-oriented or past-oriented approach to tipping. For this they used two versions of text ostensibly taken from the Emily Post etiquette guide. After reading that tipping should be performed as a way to ensure good service in the future (as opposed to rewarding past good service), the students tended to view two accounts of political and legal bribery more leniently.

“The studies reported here highlight a psychological mechanism that may help explain the surprising association between tipping and bribery both within and across countries,” the researchers said. They added that the findings raise some intriguing possibilities – for example, might encouraging people to give tips specifically as a reward for past good service act to reduce the tolerance of bribery in society?

Magnus Thor Torfason, Francis J. Flynn, and Daniella Kupor (2012). Here Is a Tip: Prosocial Gratuities Are Linked to Corruption. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612454888

-Further reading- Why we tip and how to get a bigger tip.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Prepared to wait? New research challenges the idea that we favour small rewards now over bigger later

The old idea that we make decisions like rational agents has given way over the last few decades to a more realistic, psychologically informed picture that recognises the biases and mental short-cuts that sway our thinking. Supposedly one of these is hyperbolic discounting – our tendency to place disproportionate value on immediate rewards, whilst progressively undervaluing distant rewards the further in the future they stand. But not so fast, say Daniel Read at Warwick Business School and his colleagues with a new paper that fails to find any evidence for the phenomenon.

Studies of hyperbolic discounting have often involved participants choosing between a smaller sooner reward and a later larger reward at two time points. When both rewards are in the distant future, people will pick the larger reward, but when the smaller reward is imminent then it’s the one that’s favoured.

Read’s team criticise these kinds of studies on several counts, including the fact that participants often know that the first decision is hypothetical (thus increasing the chance they’ll give the socially desirable answer), and the fact that participants often get to interact between the two decision points, which can lead to social influences.

For the new research, Read and his colleagues tested 128 participants from the LSE and Leeds Business School, sending them four weekly emails each containing several choices. The first Tuesday, the participants indicated in an email whether they’d prefer £20 immediately or £21 in one week; £21 in one week or £22 in two weeks; £22 in three weeks or £23 in four weeks; £23 in five weeks or £24 in six weeks. The following Tuesday they made the same choices, but updated for the progress of time, beginning with £21 immediately or £22 in one week, and ditto for the next two Tuesdays. The participants were told that a random selection of them would receive one of their choices, with the reward coming at the appropriate time, thus lending some reality to the task.

If hyperbolic discounting is real, there should have been evidence of the participants showing a greater preference for smaller sooner rewards the more imminent they became. No such effect was found. The researchers also looked at the ratio of choice switches – when participants favoured one option at one time point, but changed their mind later on – in terms of whether they changed to being more patient or to being more impatient. Contrary to hyperbolic discounting, switches to greater patience (favouring larger rewards later) were just as common as the other way around.

A second study built on these findings with 201 US citizens first making a choice between $20 three weeks from today vs. $21 five weeks from today; and then making the choice again three weeks later, so that the smaller reward was imminent and the slightly larger reward was two weeks hence. Some of the participants were told they were making the choice for real (and they were – the researchers even took turns sleeping so that they could fire back vouchers in timely fashion); others were told there was a chance of their choices being acted on for real.

Once again, no evidence was found for hyperbolic discounting. Just as many participants switched to greater patience at the second choice. And the smaller sooner reward was actually chosen slightly less often at the second choice, when it was immediate.

Read’s team recognise that there is widespread evidence for myopic decision making – just think of the times you’ve vowed that your future self will eat healthy food, but when the choice is imminent you go for short-term flavour over long-term health. But they think there’s a big question mark over hyperbolic discounting per se as the explanation for these effects. More promising theories, Read and his colleagues believe, are “visceral arousal theory”, in which we’re motivated to prioritise our primary needs over longer term aims; and “temporal construal theory”, in which we represent distant events more abstractly in terms of superordinate (lofty) goals, whilst seeing the short-term more concretely, in terms of our more basic needs.

If hyperbolic discounting is such a fundamental feature of human thinking, Read and his team conclude, then how come research on regret finds that most people rue, not their overindulgence, but their past failures to indulge?

How do these debates fit with your own experiences? Do you find that you favour immediate rewards, even if you could get a bigger reward by waiting?


Read D, Frederick S, and Airoldi M (2012). Four days later in Cincinnati: Longitudinal tests of hyperbolic discounting. Acta Psychologica, 140 (2), 177-85 PMID: 22634266

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Thinking about our hourly wage stops us from smelling the roses

Thinking about the monetary value of our time prevents us from being able to enjoy those moments when we’re not working. That’s the implication of new research by Sanford DeVoe and Julian House. Once we think about our time in monetary terms, they say, any time not working becomes lost revenue. This makes us impatient to get back to work and stops us from savouring the moment.

In an initial study, fifty-three students at a Canadian University answered questions about how much they expected to work and earn in their first year after graduating. Crucially, half of them answered a further question about how that would translate into an hourly wage. Next, the students were given ten minutes free time to browse the web. The key finding is that the students who hadn’t thought about their hourly wage were happier after the web browsing than they were before – they’d obviously made the most of the chance to surf the internet. By contrast, the students who’d thought about their post-graduation hourly wage were no happier after the web browsing than they were before. “Their experience of this leisure period lost some of its hedonic value and failed to bring about any improvement in their happiness,” the researchers said.

A second study tested if thinking about the monetary value of time has this adverse effect because it makes us impatient. This time hundreds of participants were recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (a site for recruiting people to work on problems at their computers). The participants listened to 86 seconds of “the Flower Duet” from the opera Lakmé after answering some work-related questions, which either did or didn’t involve thinking about their hourly pay. After the music, the participants who’d previously worked out their hourly rate for the past year were less happy than other participants. What’s more, this difference in happiness was entirely mediated by their impatience. The participants who’d worked out their hourly rate tended to agree with statements like “I was impatient for the music to end” and to disagree with statements like “I felt the music was a relaxing break”.

If thinking about the monetary value of our time prevents us from savouring the moment, what if we’re compensated for that time? A final study tested this idea. Again, some participants worked out their hourly wage before listening to a short piece of music. However, this time some of them were given a small additional participation fee for the time spent listening to the music. With this payment, the participants who’d thought about their hourly wage were able to appreciate the music just as much as the other participants who hadn’t thought about their hourly pay.

The researchers said these new results show how modern working practices could affect the way we choose to spend our free time and how much we’re able to enjoy it. In particular, with more people in part-time, flexi-time and freelance roles, time more than ever is likely to be perceived as having a monetary value. “Thinking about time in terms of money is poised to affect our ability to smell the proverbial roses,” the researchers concluded.


DeVoe, S., and House, J. (2012). Time, money, and happiness: How does putting a price on time affect our ability to smell the roses? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (2), 466-474 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.11.012

Further reading: Being paid by the hour changes the way we think about time.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Having superior working memory capacity can make time go faster

Working memory is like a neural memo-pad. People with higher working memory capacity can hold more items in mind whilst solving a concurrent problem or performing a distracting task. There’s been some excitement lately about the possibility that working memory can be improved through training, with knock-on benefits for IQ and academic attainment. A new study suggests such training should come with a footnote: “Improving your working memory could affect your perception of time“.

James Woehrle and Joseph Magliano divided 99 students into two groups according to whether they had high or low working memory capacity. Next, the students solved subtraction problems in their heads. They were told the maths was their primary task but an extra challenge was to solve the problems for a certain duration, as judged by their own internal sense of time: either two minutes or four minutes.

The intriguing finding is that time went faster for the students with higher working memory capacity. When tasked with doing the maths for four minutes, they tended to work for longer, estimating that the time was up later than the low working memory participants.

What was going on? Why should having more working memory speed up the passage of time? Woehrle and Magliano said the finding was consistent with a popular account of time estimation, which posits that pulses are released by an internal pacemaker and accumulate in a counter. More pulses in the counter suggests more time has passed. Crucially, this process is gated by attention. When we pay attention to time, each pulse makes it into the counter and the passage of time feels slower. By contrast, if our attention is focused elsewhere, fewer pulses make it into the counter, as if less time has passed than really has (i.e. giving the subjective feeling of time having flown).

According to Woehrle and Magliano’s Working Memory Capacity Hypothesis – the students in the current study with more working memory were able to allocate their attention almost entirely on the primary maths task. This benefited their maths performance but meant they were less vigilant of pulses accumulating in their internal clock. By contrast, the low working memory students couldn’t help but allocate some attention to the secondary time-keeping task, making them more aware of the passage of time. As a consequence the low working memory students’ time perception was actually more accurate but their maths performance suffered. The researchers said this evidence could have “profound implications in academic situations … low working memory students may ‘think’ too much about how much time they put into their school work.”

The new findings complement previous research showing that greater working memory capacity is associated with more accurate time perception, when time perception is the primary task. In this case, having more working memory allows for greater vigilance of the internal pacemaker and counter. Indeed, in the current study, the time perception of the higher working memory group was superior in a control condition in which they only had to estimate the passage of time.


Woehrle, J., and Magliano, J. (2012). Time flies faster if a person has a high working-memory capacity. Acta Psychologica, 139 (2), 314-319 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2011.12.006

Previously on the DigestDoubt cast on the maxim that time goes faster as you get older.
The surprising links between anger and time perception

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

People who are more aware of their own heart-beat have superior time perception skills

What underlies our sense of time? A popular account claims an internal pacemaker emits regular pulses, which are detected by an accumulator. The amount of accumulated pulses represents the amount of time that’s passed.

Trouble is, this is all very theoretical and no-one really knows how or where in the brain these functions are enacted. One suggestion is that the pulses are based on bodily feedback and in particular the heart-beat. Consistent with this is a recent brain imaging study that showed activity in the insular (a brain region associated with representing internal bodily states) rose linearly as people paid attention to time intervals (pdf). Now a behavioural study by Karin Meissner and Marc Wittmann has built on these findings by showing that people who are more sensitive to their own heart-beat are also better at judging time intervals.

Thirty-one participants listened to auditory tones of either 8, 14, or 20 seconds duration. After each one, they heard a second tone and had to press a button when they thought its duration matched the first. Counting was forbidden during the task and a secondary, number-based memory task helped enforce this rule. Heart-beat perception accuracy was measured separately and simply involved participants counting silently their own heart-beats over periods of 25, 35, 45 and 60 seconds.

The take away message is that the participants who were more in tune with their heart-beats also tended to perform better at the time estimation task. A further detail is that physiological measures taken during the encoding part of the task showed that as time went on, the participants’ heart-rate slowed progressively, and their skin conductance (i.e. amount of sweat on the skin) reduced. Moreover, the rate of change in a participant’s heart-rate (but not skin conductance) was linked with the accuracy of their subsequent time estimates.

‘These results suggest that the processing of interoceptive signals [i.e. of internal bodily states] in the brain might contribute to our sense of time,’ Meissner and Wittmann concluded.

The new findings add to past research showing that patients with cardiac arrhythmia are poorer than controls at time estimation tasks, and that drug-induced speeding or slowing of the autonomic nervous system (including heart-rate) affects people’s under- or over-estimation of time intervals.

ResearchBlogging.orgMeissner, K., and Wittmann, M. (2011). Body signals, cardiac awareness, and the perception of time. Biological Psychology, 86 (3), 289-297 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2011.01.001

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