Biased Time Perception – Mind Time, Clock Time, and Einstein

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

Eminent physicist and everyone’s favorite genius, Albert Einstein, suggested that most people have a biased perception of time: “The distinction between past, present and future is an illusion, although a persistent one.”

Molly Harrower

Molly Harrower

More than half a century after Einstein’s groundbreaking theories of relativity a pioneering psychologist   Rorschach expert Molly Harrower illustrated the emotional component of time perception in a poem she wrote during a time of personal transition and loss:

Molly Harrower-Therapy of poetryAccording to Einstein,
The faster we travel
The slower time passes
But the loneliness factor
Is constant

Wilhelm Wundt

Wilhelm Wundt

By the time that Harrower published her The Therapy of Poetry in 1972, experimental psychologists from Wilhelm Wundt to Paul Fraisse and Kurt Lewin measured the psychophysics of time perceptions.

Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo

Stanford’s Philip Zimbardo with John Boyd extended this work to demonstrate how time perspective – whether past, present or future and tinged with negative or positive emotion – is related to differences in school completion, health behaviors including smoking, drinking, drug use, contraception and driving, coping with homelessness and job search.

John Boyd

John Boyd

Zimbardo became well-known following the disturbing results of the Stanford Prison Experiment, and later began investigating subjective Time Perspective (TP) using a self-report inventory

They identified six time perspectives:

  • Positive Past
  • Negative Past
  • Hedonistic Present
  • Fatalist Present
  • Future
  • Transcendental Future

Philip Zimbardo - Ideal Time PerspectiveZimbardo and Boyd suggested an optimal orientation to time includes a calibrated perspective across the six time orientations.

Citing his own childhood in the South Bronx, Zimbardo argued that schools convert Present Hedonists into Future-oriented time perceivers, and increase opportunities for economic advancement.

Robert Levine

Robert Levine

Robert Levine of California State University, Fresno, differentiated among measured time and subjective time by defining:

  • Clock time
  • Event time
  • Natural time

He asked how people use time in different regions, and the impact of these choices on relationships and health.
Like Zimbardo and Boyd, he advocates developing the ability to move across time orientations and time-related behaviors.

Claudia Hammond

Claudia Hammond

Some of these time perspectives can include subjective biases, including an “elastic” experience of time – sometimes shorter or longer than clock time, according to the BBC’s Claudia Hammond.

She identified several biases in time perception, such as overestimating elapsed time during a frightening experience and shortening of perceived time during a pleasant experience or as one ages.

Douwe Draaisma

Douwe Draaisma

One explanation for the feeling like time accelerates as one gets older is the “proportionality theory“, according to University of Groningen’s Douwe Draaisma.

In this view, a year – 365 days most years – can feel brief when one is 40 years old and has already lived almost 14,600 days.
The same year might feel longer to an 8 year old who had lived almost 2920 days, because it is a larger proportion of experienced time.

Vincent Prohaska

Vincent Prohaska

Another time perception bias is “forward telescoping,” the feeling that past events occurred more recently than they actually did, according to Lehman College’s Vincent Prohaska with colleagues Norman Brown and Robert Belli.
Reverse telescoping” refers to past events of the same elapsed time that seem to have taken place even longer ago.

The Holiday Paradox is another time perception anomaly in which time away from one’s usual routine feeling like it passed both quickly and occurred over a long period of time, perhaps due to the concentration of new experiences and the need to concentrate on processing novel information.

Similarly, “Reminiscence Bump” enables many people to recall experiences between 15 and 25, including prominent news events and cultural trends including music, attire, interests.

University of Chicago’s Norman Bradburn suggested that these distortions may occur because many experiences during memorable or “critical” developmental periods are usually novel, distinctive, personally-involving, and emotionally-tinged.

Because these events were memorable, they may seem to have occurred more recently because people often associate clearer memories with more recent occurrences.
This “inner chronometry” of time tracking can be distorted by emotions, attention, expectations, task demands, and even ambient temperature, according to “the Clarity Hypothesis” to explain these perceptual biases.

-*How do you mitigate time biases?
-*How have you seen these time biases affect and relate to other areas of life?

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6 thoughts on “Biased Time Perception – Mind Time, Clock Time, and Einstein

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