"How Time Flies"

“Time is memory. Simple as that. Without memory, there can be no time. No before and after, no sooner or later, no now and then. After all, how do we detect what we call the passage of time except by perceiving change? But without memory, all change would be imperceptible. We see the leaves in the forest are turning brown and we think, “autumn already. How time flies.” But that is because we remember how the forest looks in summer. The forest alone, denied our memories could not bear witness to the passage of time.” Christopher Wilkins

When I have something to say, writing takes me away from the clock. I write, its OK, and time flashes by. Sometimes I look at the clock and cannot believe what time it is.

Does time perception vary as a function of motivation? When we feeling good about what we’re doing, does time pass more quickly than when we are in a negative mood?

Einstein observed that the experience of time is largely subjective and most research on time perception attributes this to the effects of positive and negative affective states. But what is the underlying mechanism of this relationship?

In three experiments Philip Gable and Bryon Poole have tried to get a handle the matter. According to their hypothesis, positive affective states vary in motivational intensity with some low in approach motivation (e.g. satisfaction) and others high (e.g. exciting). Similarly, negative avoidance states vary from boring to painful.

In their third and most informative experiment, they tried to separate the approach-avoidance dimension from intensity of arousal. Does high positive motivation shorten the perception of time relative to high-negative states, independent of approach or avoidance?

129 introductory psychology students (97 female, 32 male) participated in the study. They were asked to view high-positive arousal photographs and high-negative arousal pictures. For each picture they were asked to judge whether it was displayed for a short or a long period, with higher proportions indicating a slower perception of time.

The results revealed that high positive motivation shortens time perception relative to high negative motivation. The perception of time was largely determined by positive motivation, rather than either positive (approach) or negative (avoidance) arousal.

So when I’m writing and it is going well, I don’t think a bit about time or what time it is. On the other hand, when it isn’t going well and I am staring at a blank page or deleting one sentence after another and feeling really displeased, I am keenly aware of time and how long it is taking to accomplish something. However, in neither case am I especially aroused.

Of course, the experiments reported by Gale and Poole were conducted in the laboratory, with one method and with college students who participated because they were taking a course (psychology) where participation was a course requirement.

Would the findings occur outside the lab, under different conditions, with a different set of subjects? These are questions that are always important to answer about highly reactive laboratory experiments that are also subject to experimenter biases and a variety of subject hypotheses about what the experimenter expects and their desire not to look foolish.