Time Flies: The Psychology of Time

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It’s almost time for another year to roll around, and with the New Year right around the corner, this is a great time to talk about time. Maybe 2011 went by in a flash for you or maybe it dragged on slowly – but have you ever stopped to wonder why time can feel as though it’s sped up or slowed down? 

You might think time is absolute. After all, we measure it like it is, counting it down in decades, years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. But five seconds can feel like a lifetime to one person, and hours can feel like minutes to another person. Studies suggest time illusions, such as seconds feeling like minutes, are related to mental processing. Say you’re assembling a bicycle, and the directions are a mess. You can’t figure out where Part A snaps into Part F (and why is that one piece shaped like a question mark – that makes no sense). During this task, you’re stopping to think quite often and that’s why it feels as though it’s taking forever – there was an increase in mental processing and time “slowed.” But even if it took you the same amount of time, and the directions were clear and you didn’t think as often, you’d feel like the task was fairly quick – there was a decrease in mental process and time “sped up.”

That second scenario, the one where time flew by, is known as flow. It’s a state studied extensively by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He’s found that flow differs for people in terms of the task that induces it (so, maybe assembling a bicycle isn’t your flow but playing video games is, and so on). People, his research found, enjoy being in flow and report that time changes in the flow (for some it speeds up, for some it slows down). It’s also a state that crosses cultures, which is an odd fact when you consider how perception of time differs across the world and even between individuals.

Psychologist Robert Levine studied the perception of time in different countries, and another psychologist Philip Zimbardo studied individual perception of time. These two perceptions relate, as explained in the video below, to affect actions, choices, politics, personalities, and more. Time, it seems, has a lot to do with how we perceive the world and act in the world. So, before counting down to midnight, you might want to take some time to get to know time. 


Image credit: ToniVC

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.