Savoring the passage of time

Thursday, December 17, 2009

By Wray Herbert

I take part in a spinning class a couple times a week, and I always position my bike so I can’t see the wall clock. Spinning is really hard, and I know from experience that the session will seem much longer and much more arduous if I have one eye on the clock. It still drags some days, but other days I really forget about the clock. Time flies.

I know, it’s a cliché, but who hasn’t experienced a deep connection between the clock and the subjective experience of pleasure or pain? It’s what psychological scientists call “naïve physics.” We all know that time doesn’t really ever speed up or slow down; it always ticks at its own pace. But our perceptions of time vary dramatically, depending on our state of mind.

The universality of this naïve theory got scientist Aaron Sackett wondering if the opposite might also be true: If indeed time seems to tick away faster when we’re having fun, could a distorted sense of time make an experience more or less enjoyable? And why? Sackett, a professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, ran several experiments to look at this common perception in a variety of ways. All of them involved tinkering with the passage of time in creative ways.

In one experiment, for example, Sackett and his colleagues put a group of men and women in two rooms, each without any clocks or watches or cell phones. They had them do a timed test, in which they had to read a text and underline certain words—so not particularly fun-filled, but not particularly aversive either. The scientists told the volunteers the test would take exactly ten minutes, and made a big show of starting a stopwatch as they left the room.

But the test didn’t take exactly ten minutes. For some, the scientists reentered after just five minutes, but acted as if the full ten minutes had passed; they even left the stopwatch conspicuously in view. For others, they didn’t reenter the room until 20 minutes had passed, but again they left the volunteers with the idea that ten minutes had passed. In other words, for some ten minutes seemed surprisingly long, while for others it seemed short—the lab equivalent of making time fly.

Then all the volunteers rated the experience for enjoyment, challenge, fun, engagement, and so forth. And the results were clear: If the ten minutes passed surprisingly quickly, volunteers found the word search task more pleasurable than if time seemed to drag. This doesn’t mean they found it exhilarating, or that the others found it crushingly boring—but their subjective experiences were definitely different on the pleasure scale.

But what if the task were actually aversive—more akin to the muscle ache of a spinning class? In a second study, the scientists forced the volunteers to listen to a tape recording of a dot matrix printer for 30 seconds. Thirty seconds is not a long time, but apparently this was a really irritating noise. While they listened, they watched the elapsed time tick off on a screen-- except that, unbeknownst to the volunteers, the elapsing time was either too slow or too fast. So again, for some time flew, while for others time dragged.

And again, time perceptions shaped emotions. When time flew, the tedious listening experience seemed less tedious, more bearable. When it dragged, it was worse; these listeners said they would rather listen to an electric drill if given the option. They also ran the experiment with a pleasant audiotape—of a favorite song—and once again time distortions determined the pleasure of the listening experience. That is, a pleasant experience became more pleasant.

So what does all of this mean? As the researchers explain on-line this week in the journal Psychological Science, humans are sense-making creatures. If we perceive something in the world as surprising, we automatically look for an explanation for the aberration. So if time sees distorted, we want to know why—and out intuitive physics clicks in: If time flies when we’re having fun, then flying time must signal that something fun is taking place.

In real life, we can’t slow or speed up time, of course. But we can shorten our estimates of time, and one way is not to look at clocks or other time cues. There may be other ways to make time fly as well, which suggests the possibility of making the inevitable tedium of everyday life—waiting in line, for example, or even a spinning class—just a bit more fun.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the “Full Frontal Psychology” blog at True/Slant. Excerpts from “We’re Only Human” appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 3:24 PM


At 8:08 AM , Blogger Tom said...

This is a great post. It's great when a psychological study embraces an almost, urban legend-like topic. Kind of like MythBusters for therapists. ha! Thanks for finding and posting about this study!


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At 4:43 PM , Blogger Nance said...

This research fits well into the theories of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Psychology. For me, there's dragging time, quick time, and then there's flow time...when I'm writing about something that fascinates me, or when I'm visiting blogs I like and leaving comments, for example. Flow time is faster than time spent in most other pleasant activities, I find. More research!


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