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Time Flies When You’re Having Phone

Credit: alphaspirit/adobe

Credit: alphaspirit/adobe

By Aoife McLoughlin

Have modern communications technologies increased the pace of life or merely affected our ability to judge how much time has passed?

It’s impossible not to notice that time can appear to stall in some circumstances but fly by in others. A few hours at work on a Friday afternoon can feel infinitely longer to us than a few hours spent socialising with friends on a Saturday afternoon.

Research has implicated many different factors that impact on our sense of time, causing us to overestimate or underestimate how much time has passed. For example, body temperature, heart rate, complexity of task, age, size of the stimulus, intensity of the stimulus, alcohol and the emotion of the situation have been shown at various times to impact on our ability to accurately judge the passage of time.

However, until recently there has been very little quantitative research looking from a psychological perspective at the impact of “modern life” on our experience of time. This seems unusual as areas such as philosophy, anthropology and sociology have long since highlighted links between modernisation and time pressure.

Within sociology it’s been observed that the pace of life has increased with modernisation. In his book Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, German historian Reinhart Koselleck claimed that individuals as far back as the French Revolution complained of the speed of modern living, and that in 1877 fellow historians had noted high speed and the pressure it put on life as the most significant aspect of the time.

Prolific German sociologist Prof Hartmut Rosa of Friedrich Schiller University Jena has developed a model called the Acceleration Cycle (http://tinyurl.com/zwqk3f9), which outlines the cyclical nature of acceleration in technology, social change and pace of life. Rosa claims that western economies impact on technological acceleration, which leads to an acceleration in social change within the society. This, in turn, causes individuals to experience an increase in the pace of life of that society, and initiates a need for faster technologies.

The advent of ne w technologies is often causally related to beliefs about increased pace of life and time pressure. As James Gleick pointed out in his 1999 book Faster, we are continuously attempting to save time by engaging in acts such as pushing an elevator’s “door close” button or replacing slow cookers with microwaves. We believe that the few seconds we save are of great importance to us because we also believe that we are working much harder and longer than our ancestors ever did. We report feeling immense pressure from this time squeeze yet, when we examine our daily activities, it appear that the assumption that we are working more hours than ever before is simply not true.

Gleick gives an example of one participant in a study who believes he works 41 hours per week until he actually realises through the use of a time diary that he is only working just over 14 hours each week. The rest of his time is spent engaging with his emails and socialising.

And this was 17 years ago! Imagine the impact that social networking sites have had on this figure!

Rosa sees this as the paradox of time, claiming that although there is an increase in the technologies that are purported to save time, individuals feel as though they have less time and experience more time pressure . Is there also a cognitive basis for this experience?

A series of studies I conducted have highlighted that individuals who use more information communication technology (ICT), such as laptops and mobile phones, display some behaviours linked to an increase in their subjective timing – that is, they overestimate the amount of time that has passed – compared with individuals who use less technology.

Participants in these studies, conducted originally in Ireland and now being followed up in Singapore, were asked to complete a specially designed questionnaire detailing how much technology they used on a daily basis. Alongside this questionnaire they completed various tasks, such as estimating time intervals by indicating start and stop points on a keyboard, listening to tones and estimating their duration, and completing various tasks and estimating how long they had been working on them.

The majority of participants appeared to overestimate the amount of time that was passing, leading them to underestimate the intervals in production tasks and overestimate the durations of estimation tasks. Interestingly, participants who used more ICT did this to a greater extent.

The difference also appeared to be somewhat multiplicative, so that the longer the duration to be produced or estimated, the greater the mismatch between participants. Within the world of human time perception research this is generally taken to indicate that the effect is linked to the velocity of some type of internal pacemaker.

This therefore would suggest that individuals who are using more technology in their daily lives have a faster pacemaker than those who use less. It also suggests that this pacemaker is increasing at such a rate that our minds can’t naturally recalibrate this system.

In order to examine why this might have happened, I next looked at whether there was a potential priming effect at play. Priming is a psychological phenomenon in which exposure to one stimulus can impact our response to another stimulus. Perhaps when dealing with fast technology we try to emulate this “fastness” ourselves.

In order to investigate this, participants completed another estimation task. They were trained to recognise a certain interval duration represented by a tone, and then assigned a paragraph to read. This paragraph was either an advert for the Apple iPad that included many technological “buzz words”, a set of time management tips (in order to see if thinking about time management also “sped us up”), or a book review completely unrelated to timing or technology as a control. After they had completed the reading they were then tested on their recognition of their trained duration. I found that participants in the “technocentric” group appeared to “speed up” their experience of time, overestimating the interval durations compared with participants who had read the unrelated book review or a set of time management tips.

This finding indicates that our ability to time accurately can be very easily influenced by these technologies, even by simply reading about them. It implies that the time-keeping pacemaker within us is influenced by the modern society in which we are living. As this pacemaker increases in speed we must feel that time is passing at a faster rate, giving rise to a time pressure within us.

This gives quantifiable support to Rosa’s Acceleration Cycle. It also implies that there may be more reason to turn off our mobile phones and iPads when we are on holidays, and not simply to avoid calls from the office!

So should we all stay away from ICT? Hide from the modern world? Throw out our mobile phones and live off the grid? Of course not.

In fact, there may even be some benefits to having a faster internal timer. Some researchers have shown that it can lead to faster information processing speeds and faster reaction times!

This could be good news for the current generation of ICT-obsessed students when completing exams with a time deadline. The faster their reaction times and processing speeds, the more time they feel they have in an exam situation.

Others have also highlighted that we live in an “event society” in which time pressure is linked to higher reported levels of happiness and well-being. Even though we feel more time-poor, our brains take this an indicator of our success. “I must be happy and doing well: look at how busy I am?”

However, just like our computers and mobiles phones, sometimes we need to be rebooted. We can’t consistently run at this faster rate as this time pressure and stress can eventually manifest in physical illness and has been linked to cardiovascular issues.

Therefore it’s important that we become more aware of the difference between our subjective experience of time and objective standard clock time. By taking a moment to stop and smell the roses, we should be able to realign our internal representations of time with objective time. In this way we could learn to harness the benefits of an increase in subjective timing while avoiding the negative outcomes of time pressure and stress.


Aoife McLoughlin lectures in psychology at James Cook University’s Singapore campus.