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Time warp: why uncertainty affects how we perceive time

Sam Maglio is an assistant professor in U of T Scarborough's Department of Management. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Have you ever wondered why a trip to a new destination feels longer than the return trip home?

According to new U of T Scarborough research, a big reason may come down to uncertainty over future events.

“When people are anticipating uncertain future events, time tends to feel longer than when they are anticipating more certain future events,” says Sam Maglio, an assistant professor in U of T Scarborough’s Department of Management and the Rotman School of Management. 

Maglio, along with Cherrie Kwok, a psychology undergraduate at U of T Scarborough, looked at how uncertainty affects time perception using something called the return trip phenomenon.

The return trip phenomenon reveals that outbound journeys tend to feel longer than similar inbound journeys. A big reason for the effect, notes Maglio, comes down to the uncertainty involved in an outbound trip.

“People tend to go to places that are more uncertain. You start off at home, a place you’re familiar with, then you go out where any number of things can happen,” he says.

According to past research, uncertainty for a future event might make time feel longer because whether anticipating something negative or positive to happen, the uncertainty of what may happen increases the intensity of the emotion being felt. 

“Uncertainty makes an emotional experience more intense, and the more intense the experience, the longer time tends to feel,” says Maglio, whose past research has focused on dynamic movement.

“So if we want time to feel longer we should build in uncertainty. If we want to make time feel shorter then we should remove uncertainty from the equation.”

While uncertainty can be exciting, he says marketers may want to think twice about using it as an advertising strategy, especially promoting surprise in-store specials without offering details about what will actually be on sale.

“Afterward, customers may remember that the drive to the store felt like it took a really long time, and if they think it was time consuming, they may decide next time to go a different, closer store instead.”

On the other hand uncertainty can be a good thing, especially if you’re on vacation.

“You may want to include a lot of uncertainty in your vacation because it can make time feel longer, so your seven-day trip may end up feeling longer than it really is,” he says.

“In other words, making time feel longer can be a good thing when it’s something we want more of, but it’s not necessarily a good thing when it involves something we don’t want to do.”    

So what about the routine trips we take all the time, is there something we can do to make the time go by quicker?

Maglio says an important thing to keep in mind is that when you’re not thinking about the passage of time, it seems to go by a lot faster.

“Instead of focusing on the future and going over the countless iterations of what could happen when you get there, if you listen to an engaging podcast or talk about a different topic with your travel companion, it will feel that time is going by quickly,” he says.

The research is available online and will be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.  

 




© University of Toronto Scarborough