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