January 3, 2010

If Time Flies When You’re Having Fun, Will You Have Fun If You Make Time Fly?

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Einstein said it best when he explained relativity: “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, it seems like two minutes. When you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it seems like two hours.”

Yes, everyone knows that time slips away at light speed when you’re having fun. But is the reverse true? Is it possible to have fun if you somehow make time move faster? Aaron Sackett, a psychology researcher at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, decided to put the idea to the test.

Fun isn’t the only thing that makes time appear to fly by, after all, he reasoned. Drinking coffee or using any upper, or experiencing an adrenaline rush can easily have the same effect.

Since he couldn’t exactly change the speed of time, he and researchers worked on speeding up or slowing down the perceived passage of time by taking away subjects’ mobiles and watches (“so they could better concentrate,” they told them) and flat-out lying about what time it was.

Subjects were told to read a text and underline all words with double letter combinations, like apple or mammal. Half of the participants were told they would be doing this for five minutes and the other half for 20. In truth, both groups did the exercise for 10.

The fibs created surprise among the subjects when they were told their time was up. For those told they were doing the exercise for five minutes, it seemed endless. For those who thought they were doing the execise for 20 minutes, time seemed to speed by.

“People who thought that they spent 20 minutes on this 10-minute task, for whom those 20 minutes, in their mind, flew by, rated the task as much more enjoyable, as more fun, and just overall more positively than did participants who felt as though time dragged by,” Sackett says.

To see if fun things could be made even more fun, the researchers had people pick their favorite songs. As they listened to them, a rigged clock on the music player counted the seconds, either speeding them up or slowing them down slightly.

“When we instigated this sense that ‘time flew by’ while they were listening to the song, they rated it even more positively than they otherwise would have,” says Sackett.

The sense that time was speeding by also made the annoying slightly less annoying: in another study, the researchers tricked subjects about how long they’d be exposed to horrible noise. When participants were made to believe they’d been listening for shorter time than they actually were, they reported to hate the sounds. But those who believed they’d be exposed longer but were not “just sort of slightly disliked it,” says Sackett.

Why is this? Sackett thinks it’s because we have been conditioned to believe the fast passage of time indicates fun.

To test this, he did the underlining experiment again and gave the participants earplugs, casually suggesting that these may affect their perception of time. For these people, there was no “time flying effect.”

“It was like they no longer needed to make that attribution that ‘Time was flying, I must have had fun,’ ” explains Sackett. “Instead, they said to themselves, ‘Well, time was flying because I had earplugs in.’”

A report about this study is set to appear in the journal Psychological Science.

Information from NPR.

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