Monday, 24 May 2010

Doubt cast on the maxim that time goes faster as you get older

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.'
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ResearchBlogging.orgFriedman, W., & Janssen, S. (2010). Aging and the speed of time. Acta Psychologica, 134 (2), 130-141 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2010.01.004

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

6 comments:

  1. Anonymous2:20 pm

    Seems obvious to me that as I age it's the days and weeks that go by faster, not the decade. That's what they should be asking

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  2. Anonymous1:30 pm

    I've always felt that time feels like it is passing more quickly as I age because of the emotional regulation that comes from experience. The highs aren't as frequently as high, the lows aren't as frequently as low. Having experienced forty years worth of each, and having knowledge of how they come to pass and how 'normalcy' returns makes them both more comfortable. A metaphor- a two hour boat trip seems much longer on a choppy sea than on a calm one. It's much easier to relax through some chop when that comes, after you know it will be peaceful around the corner.

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  3. Anonymous8:28 am

    I feel that each year speeds by as a proportion of the years you've lived. So year 3 is REALLY slow because its a third of your experience where as year 60 is gone in a blink of an eye.

    Alternatively a more cognitive explanation of our ability to recall irrelevant detail could account for our feeling that events are telescoping. I know when I was younger I recalled almost everything and now I can barely recall what I ate the day before! Therefore when I look back the number of items I recall in a month is much lower. It may even be that we rate time as the time it takes us to think about the events that have occured.

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  4. Anonymous11:28 pm

    Our brains are incredible organs and I have just chalked up the "time flies" phenomena as our brains canceling out that which is retained in our memory, so there's less networking that has to go on, in other words we process more quickly without being aware of it.

    One example, on challenging game shows, or even Jeopardy, the past few years the answer to questions I thought I had no knowlege of come floating out instantly; indeed, I have surprised myself, but not complaining whatever the 'cause.'

    More over, if we've learned anything about living at all, and learned to let go of controlling issues, we don't "bother" with disintereting minutia, which saves us energy and stress in the years we can well do without them - "the calm sea" example above, perhaps.

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  5. Anonymous4:08 pm

    Is the sky really blue? When asked "What does the sky look like?" we got answers like "pillowy mounds of mashed potatoes" and "peace" and "an open field". Based on this, we have decided that the sky being blue is simply a made up story that people simply all agree on because of oral tradition and groupthink.


    First anon nailed it! The idiotic questions & methods used in these studies tend to be inspired by the statement "I remember it like it was yesterday" rather than the statement "is it Easter already?"

    The implication is that the perception is simply "made up" as if people don't actually experience this beyond the "power of suggestion."

    When these researchers actually get older, they may find these "self-fulfilling .. cultural beliefs" to be a wee bit more empirical than they are led to believe.

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  6. Anonymous11:55 am

    Iasonas: Undoubtedly interviewer's questions can't be perfect. Hell, when it comes to communicating any form of information, language comes short by a long way. What language can't mainly depict is the crucial set of experiences that contribute to what we say as "I lived that". We can all try to describe it, but I'm sure it would find many of you in agreement that our subjectivity will always be the main filter that stands between our endoscopy and what we report as true. In our case here I'm inclined to say that participants were asked to produce a vague interpretation (couldn't be otherwise) of their relationship with one of the most difficult to grasp concepts that humans ever invented: time. In my opinion, time is nonexistent, there is only "the big now" and our brain with its stored memories of added "big nows" that carve the notion, or if you prefer the illusion of time lapsed. I agree with the above writer that remarks on proportionality to the amount of years one has lived as a modifier to her/his time perception, but there is one important behavioral/biological aspect that is not taken in account here: as we grow old we think more and act less and its not only our deteriorating bodies that cause that. Our brain with its evermore network complexity gets in the way of us acting. When we were kids we were governed more by senses, by body movements all in relation to life's playground, we were LIVING/ACTING "the big now" we didn't think our way through "IT". It's natural that our memories from that period represent a more vivid partnership of our existence with "time" hence the slower passing effect.
    In later years, older people have made a comeback to life's playground due to increased options in everyday acting out possibilities. The results from the above study, especially the ones that were produced as a function of "being rushed or not" are very interesting. Reading the later I thought that it would be a good idea to compare people with higher than average involvement to physical activity with those with lower....
    P.S sorry if I'm not that clear, English isn't my native language...

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