Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Why does Time Slow to a Crawl when we Engage in Laborous Tasks?

"Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute."

- Albert Einstein, on Relativity.

Kathleen Vohs and Brandon Schmeichel, particularly fascinated with Einstein's first observation, sought to establish whether regulating the self can elongate the 'felt' duration of time. "Because people who are self-regulating tend to monitor their behaviour, they are likely to be attuned to the passage of time," explain the authors, "these monitoring responses and resultant attention to time are not found among people who are not regulating."

In simpler terms, 'self-regulation' is likely to be linked with the attention to time. In earlier studies on duration judgment, when participants were asked after watching a TV episode to estimate the length of the episode, they gave shorter time estimates than participants who were told that they had to guess the duration of the episode prior to watching it. It appears that conscious deliberation, as opposed to the non-regulated state of automatic processing, might lead one to be more aware of time passing.

Thus, hypothesizing that deliberate, conscious and effortful self-regulation would lead one to feeling like time has passed slowly, Vohs and Schmeichel conducted four illuminating studies that lent scientific support to the claim.

In Study 1, the authors made participants watch a clip from the film Terms of Endearment, which shows a dying mother saying good-bye to her children, husband and mother. Participants were made to either naturally respond to what they saw, or suppress their emotions or exaggerate their emotions while watching the show. This manipulation had been found in earlier studies to be effective in causing participants to consciously regulate their emotions which led to diminished self-control capacity.

Participants were instructed to estimate the length of the video clip after the 11 min 23 sec clip ended.

It was found that participants who exaggerated or suppressed their emotions perceived that the film clip had lasted longer than participants who were natural during the film.

In Study 2, a similar experimental set up was used, although the film was changed from Terms of Endearment to Mondo Cane (depicting the death of wildlife). To determine that longer judgments of time were due to self-regulation specifically and not generic information processing, a new condition called 'reappraisal' was introduced. Participants in the reappraisal group were instructed to view the affectively-charged scenes in a detached manner. The authors explain: "Prior studies have shown that effects associated with emotion control (e.g. memory decrements because of emotion suppression) are absent when participants are given a reappraisal framework within which to view an emotional scene."

Participants were, again, then asked to judge how long the clip lasted.

The results support the idea that the Natural and Reappraisal conditions, which did not require self-monitoring, did not prompt the attention to time that was present in the Suppress condition.

In Study 3, participants were told to read aloud pages of text that corresponded to various types of professions. In the behavioural control group, participants were instructed to 'act out' the profession as depicted by the text, and thus they had to do their best to "act happy, smile and 'get into it'" as expected of the profession. Participants in the no condition group weren't given any such instructions.

After 4 minutes and 23 seconds had passed, participants were interrupted with a questionnaire asking them how long they thought the experiment had lasted. After that, participants were told that they could continue up to a cap of 15 minutes and stop at anytime in between.

Once again, the findings of the first two studies were replicated in the results of Study 3 as participants in the behavioural control group felt that they spent a longer time doing the task than participants in the no condition group. Continuance of the task was also affected by the manipulation, as "the longer participants believed they had been doing the read-aloud task, the shorter they continued with it after the 4:23 mark."

From this, the authors built a model that linked the experimental conditions and subsequent regulatory ability.

The results of this model were supportive of the hypothesis that time perception is a mediator. This model was further supported by a final study.

Thus, across four experiments, the authors found that people's perceptions of the duration of an activity were significantly affected by self-regulatory resource depletion. Whenever some form of cognitive regulation is involved, for instance, emotion regulation or self regulation, people can believe that the task involved lasted much longer. "A taxing self-regulatory activity is remembered as being overly long."

Where Einstein's latter observation is concerned, it might thus be likely that sitting with an attractive member of the opposite sex constitutes a very enjoyable process that requires less self regulation, which makes us less conscious of the passage of time. So, where does this place those who experience anxiety approaching attractive members of the opposite sex?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for
Vohs, K., & Schmeichel, B. (2003). Self-regulation and extended now: Controlling the self alters the subjective experience of time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85 (2), 217-230 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.85.2.217

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