Is there truth in the saying that Time flies when you’re having fun? If so, how well do humans actually perceive the ‘flying’ of time? Do we get bored and feel that time goes slowly when doing something easy? Does time seem to rush past us when doing a difficult task? Does it matter if you’re working with or against someone?
These are some of the questions our research sought to answer.
What are previous studies saying about this?
People generally don’t notice how much time has actually passed when they’re in a jolly mood (Kellaris & Kent, 1992; Droit-Volet & Meck, 2007). On the other hand, it feels as though time “drags” when a person is unhappy, angry, or bored, e.g., when you’re waiting for a 3-hour class to end or when you’re stuck in traffic and it’s super hot outside.
Under stressful conditions, duration is underestimated (Gupta & Khosia, 2006). Stress in such conditions may be caused by the difficulty of the task or the nature of social interaction.
If a difficult task is likely to cause a person distress, then perhaps a person performing such a stressful task would think that more time had passed by. Following the same line of thinking, a person performing an easy task might guess that less time had elapsed since he/she was having fun. Moreover, task difficulty would divert one’s attention from thinking about time. Since attention is a major factor in the subjective measurement of time (Droit-Volet and Gil, 2009), a person performing a difficult, more attention-requiring task would perceive time more inaccurately.
Aside from task difficulty, social interaction has also been found to affect one’s mood (Kelly & Barsade, 2011; Forgas, Bower & Krantz, 1984). In the presence of others, you’d be more positive (that is, unless you don’t like the person for some reason). Hence, if two people work together on the same task, they may not accurately estimate the amount of time it took for them to complete it because, again, it was a fun experience.
But what if those same two people were competing against each other? What would differ?
Competition is known to bring out negative feelings toward the competitor (Deutsch, 1949b). Intuitively, a competitive setting would affect interacting individuals differently and, hence, would result in different perception of time. Competing individuals working on the same task may perform more poorly than either a cooperating duo or a person working on his own. This is because a competitive setting makes one feel more tense, anxious, and panicky (Imagine being told that your performance will be compared with others, even with the person standing right in front of you! Isn’t the thought of it just unsettling already?), causing a person to make more errors—in the task and in guesstimating time.
To test our hypotheses regarding time perception, we conducted an experiment wherein task difficulty and nature of social interaction were manipulated. We randomly selected 120 undergraduate college students to participate.
We made use of two types of tasks: an easy and a difficult one. In the easy task, they simply had to stack soda cans in an inverted pyramid (you can view the blueprint here). In the difficult task, their objective was to throw a 1-peso coin into a water container that was 20 feet away (you can view the blueprint here).
For each task, participants were asked to either cooperate with or compete against each other. There was also a condition where participants were told to work individually and that their performance would not be judged. To prime the participants who were asked to cooperate or compete with each other, they were presented with pre-tested videos which had actors that were rated as interacting cooperatively or competitively.
What did we find?
Our results show that humans aren’t that great at estimating time. We usually underestimate the time it takes for us to do a task–whether it’s easy or difficult, and whether you’re competing against or cooperating with another person. This is because our attention is directed away from the passing of time whenever we are performing tasks, more so if we are not aware that we will be asked to measure how long we think the duration of the activity was.
There are also no significant differences in the perceived time duration of the task among those who did an easy or difficult task alone, with another person in a cooperative interaction, or with another person in a competitive interaction. This means that regardless of how challenging the task is, we incorrectly measure time to more or less the same extent. This could be due to the nature of the tasks as being more physical than cognitive. Whether the task was physically easy or difficult may not have changed the amount of cognitive load or mental processing needed to be able to perform the task.
However, there are correlations between mood and perceived difficulty of task and nature of social interaction. Those who rated their mood as more positive also rated the task to be easier and the social interaction to be more cooperative. Conversely, those who rated their mood as more negative also rated the task to be more difficult and the social interaction to be more competitive. Easy tasks have a higher probability for success versus difficult tasks. Success leads to more positive moods, while failure to complete a difficult task may induce stress, leading to more negative moods. Successfully completing the task may also lead the participants into thinking that they “won” the experiment. Research by McCaul and colleagues (1992) show the effect of winning on emotions – when we win, we feel happy. All of these factors may explain why mood and perceived difficulty of the task are correlated. Mood can also affect social interaction, in the same way that social interaction can also affect mood (Kelly & Barsade, 2011; Forgas et al, 1984). Competitive situations where one can be the winner and one can be the loser can affect our mood, depending on how well we are able to perform relative to the other player. Our mood can also influence how competitive or cooperative we are towards others. People in more positive moods tend to prefer cooperation over competition (Aderman, 1972; Barsade, 2002; Forgas, 1998 as cited in Diener, 2009).
Winning and losing also had an effect on perceived nature of social interaction. Those who won rated their interaction with the other participant as more cooperative. Even if the participants were placed in competitive conditions, those who won may have felt that the environment was not too competitive because they were able to perform better than their opponent, which leads to more positive emotions. Positive emotions are related to more cooperative interactions, which may explain why the winners rated their interactions to be more cooperative. This supports the findings of Deutsch (1949a), which state that cooperative interactions exhibit more positive characteristics, which are also manifested when one successfully performs a task. (Deutsch, 1949a)
Further findings also showed no significant difference between the time estimates of males and females. Despite not being able to get an equal number of male and female participants for the study, this conclusion is still supported by research. Studies by Montare (1985, 1988) suggest that time perception might be equivalent among males and females.
Basically, what does this all mean?
Overall, results show that the nature of social interaction, task difficulty, mood, winning or losing, and the sex of the participant do not affect time perception. However, it was found that mood was correlated with the nature of social interaction and task difficulty. Additionally, those who won had different ratings of interaction as compared to those who lost. Results of competitive and control conditions also showed opposite trends.
How could our study be better?
First, we had a limited and non representative sample. We used Psych 101 students from the University of the Philippines Diliman. Hardly representative of the whole population. We would definitely recommend a larger and wider sample. Another limitation would be the inability to control the participants’ familiarity with one another. Some participants came in as total strangers (they were seriously not talking at all), while some participants came in as friends (aka bantering and joking with each other even during the competitive condition). An experimental set-up with a confederate and one participant could be done to address this issue. Also, since the tasks employed in this study were more physical in nature, it is recommended that tasks that require more cognitive effort in addition to the physical exertion be used for further studies.
Our results seem to contradict much of the current literature. Is it due to the limitations, or are we onto something new? Well, this question is left for more researchers to decide. If you’re planning on replicating this, do keep in mind our recommendations. Who knows? We might just overturn the knowledge that has been around since time immemorial (pun intended).
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