100 Things You Should Know About People: #59 — Time Is Perceived as Relative

Picture of a wall clock
Time Is Relative

Has this ever happened to you? You are traveling 2 hours to visit friends. It’s two hours to get there and 2 hours to get back, but the trip there feels much longer.

It’s about the mental processing — In his interesting book, The Time Paradox, Philip Zimbardo discusses how our experience of time is relative, not absolute. There are time illusions, just like there are visual illusions. The more mental processing you do, the more time you think has elapsed. If people have to stop and think at each step of a task, they will feel that the task is taking too long. The mental processing makes the amount of time seem longer.

It’s about expectations — The perception of time and your reaction to it, is also greatly influenced by predictability and expectations. Let’s say you are editing video on your computer. You’ve just clicked the button to produce the video file from your edits. Will you be frustrated by how long it takes to produce the video? If you do this task often, and it normally takes 3 minutes, then 3 minutes will not seem like a long time. If there is an in-progress indicator, for example a bar that is moving, or a message that says “2 minutes 48 seconds left to completion”, then you know what to expect. You’ll go pour yourself a cup of coffee and come back. But if it sometimes takes 30 seconds and sometimes takes 5 minutes, and you don’t which one it is going to be this time, then you will be very frustrated if it takes 3 minutes. Three minutes will seem much longer than it usually does.

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