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.
AM 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.