Category: Time

Doubt cast on the maxim that time goes faster as you get older

Time gets faster the older you are. Or does it? When William Friedman and Steve Janssen asked 49 New Zealand undergrads (average age 21) and 50 older adults (average age 68) to say how fast time passed for them, including the last week, month and year, very few differences emerged. Most participants felt time passed quickly but it was only when considering the speed of the last ten years that the older adults said time had gone by more quickly than the younger participants, and even here the effect of age was small.

This finding, and another like it involving German and Austrian participants published in 2005, casts doubt on some of the classic explanations for time speeding up with age, including William James’ suggestion that time feels slower when younger because it is packed with more memorable events. If true, you’d expect the effect to apply over time periods shorter than ten years.

Friedman and Janssen’s initial study also undermined a novel explanation for time speeding up known as ‘telescoping’. This is the idea that time feels faster when we look back on past events and discover that we underestimated how long ago they occurred. Earlier in the study, the researchers had asked their participants to estimate when 12 newsworthy events from the past had occurred, including Saddam Hussein’s capture in 2003. By giving them false feedback on their accuracy, the researchers exaggerated or reduced the telescoping effect but this didn’t have any effect on participants’ subsequent ratings of how fast time goes by.

A second study, conducted on the internet, tested a novel explanation for time seeming faster to some people than others: feeling rushed. Nearly two thousand Dutch participants aged between 16 and 80 rated the speed of time and how rushed they felt in life. Once again, very few age differences emerged, with only the ten-year period being judged to have passed more quickly by older participants.

Age accounted for four per cent of the variance in how quickly participants said the last ten years had passed and just one per cent of the perception of time’s speed in general. By contrast, how busy and rushed people reported feeling accounted for ten per cent of the variance in subjective speed of time. Consistent with this, women reported feeling more rushed than men, on average, and they perceived time to go by more quickly.

Quite why the idea that time speeds up with age is so widely believed requires further study, the researchers said. ‘Another significant question,’ they continued, ‘is why age differences in the subjective speed of time are found when adults are asked to consider the last ten years but not present or only very weak when they report on the last year or more recent intervals.’ The effect over ten years, they suggested, could simply be the self-fulfilling effect of the cultural belief that time speeds up with age.

‘The answers to these questions,’ Friedman and Janssen concluded, ‘may shed light on a topic that has engaged philosophers and psychologists for more than 100 years.’

Friedman, W., & Janssen, S. (2010). Aging and the speed of time. Acta Psychologica, 134 (2), 130-141 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2010.01.004

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

Time flew by … I must have been enjoying myself

Have you ever been in the cinema and felt the time drag? It’s happened to me. A glance at my watch and then the thought that I can’t be enjoying the film all that much or else the time would surely have flown. My experience matches the findings from a series of studies by Aaron Sackett and colleagues. The folk psychology belief ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ is so powerful and ubiquitous, the researchers say, that whenever we feel an event has passed more quickly than we expected, we infer that we must have been enjoying ourselves, and vice versa for events that drag.

The researchers first had dozens of undergrads look through passages of text and underline any words with adjacent repeats of a particular letter. Crucially, the researchers told the participants that the task would last ten minutes, but in reality it lasted either five minutes or twenty minutes, thus creating the illusion of time flying or dragging, respectively. A sneaky switch of stop-watches helped create the illusion. Afterwards, the participants who’d experienced the sense of the time flying rated the task as far more enjoyable than did the participants who’d experienced the sense of time dragging.

Further experiments showed that provoking the feeling of time flying led participants to be more tolerant of an irritating noise, and led them to enjoy their favourite song more than usual. This last finding was important because there was a possibility that it would feel unpleasant for a pleasurable activity to end earlier than expected.

If people really do use the ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ adage to evaluate their own enjoyment, then challenging or encouraging the truth of the adage ought to affect the kind of findings described above. That’s exactly what Sackett’s team found. When participants read a scientific article challenging the ‘time flies’ adage, speeding up their subjective sense of time no longer increased their enjoyment of a word-based task.

It was a similar story when participants were given an alternative explanation for why time might have raced by. Participants were given ear plugs, which they were told could speed people’s time perception. Again, the illusion of time flying didn’t lead these participants to enjoy a task more, presumably because they attributed the sense of time flying to the ear plugs rather than to their enjoyment.

‘Taken together, these findings have important implications for understanding and changing hedonic experience,’ the researchers said. The Digest got in touch with lead author Aaron Sackett, Marketing Professor at the University of St. Thomas, to ask him how this might apply in the real world. He said the first thing to do is minimise people’s access to accurate time cues. Next, alter their subjective time perception. There are numerous ways to do this. For example, physiological arousal speeds time perception so a free coffee at the start of a long queue could work (as long as no clocks were in sight). Even music that’s incongruent with the context (e.g. Chinese music in an English restaurant) has been found to speed time. Finally, you need the surprise moment, when people are alerted to the true passage of time. That provokes in people the sensation of time having flown, followed by the gratifying inference that they must therefore have been enjoying themselves.

ResearchBlogging.orgAM Sackett, LD Nelson, T Meyvis, BA Converse, & AL Sackett (2010). You’re having fun when time flies: The hedonic consequences of subjective time progression. Psychological Science : 10.1177/0956797609354832

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

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.

People prone to boredom less able to judge short intervals of time

It’s no wonder they get bored. According to psychologists James Danckert and Ava-Ann Allman at the University of Waterloo in Canada, time really does pass more slowly for people who are prone to boredom. The researchers came to this conclusion after finding people prone to boredom were less accurate at estimating the duration of intervals lasting from two seconds to a minute, than were people not prone to boredom.

Four hundred and seventy-six undergrads completed a 28-item questionnaire designed to measure boredom proneness, rating their agreement or not with statements like “Having to watch someone’s home movies or travel slides bores me tremendously”. From this, the 20 most and least boredom prone students were selected.

The remaining participants then completed a measure of their ability to rapidly reallocate their attention from one instant to the next, which required them to watch a computer monitor and note the appearance of one or two letters that appeared in streams of numbers. The brain’s limited attentional resources mean that if a second letter appeared too soon (typically within 200 to 500 ms) after the first, it would be more likely to go unnoticed – this is called the attentional blink. The participants then watched a series of illusory motion displays that showed a dot appearing to move around in a circle, and they had to say in each case how long in seconds the movement had lasted.

The size of the attentional blink was no larger in the participants prone to boredom than it was in the control participants, suggesting they were just as capable of refocusing their attention from one instant to the next. However, the boredom prone individuals were significantly less accurate at judging the duration of the illusory motion, particularly tending to overestimate its length.

The researchers said “If one’s subjective experience indicates that a task (say, reading an article on boredom) has taken less time than has really passed, that individual may be more motivated to continue reading and may in turn report the experience as a pleasant one…In other words, perhaps the reason time flies when we’re having fun is because this perception allows us to maintain attention for longer periods, which in turn allows us to see things through to completion, and perhaps results in more positive affect and enjoyment of the task itself”.

Danckert, J.A. & Allman, A.A. (2005). Time flies when you’re having fun: Temporal estimation and the experience of boredom. Brain and Cognition, 59, 236-245.

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