Rohane Hamilton/Shutterstock.com

How the Pandemic Upended Our Perception of Time

Research funded by the National Science Foundation shows the extent to which Americans' internal clocks went haywire.

Think back to life before stay-at-home orders. Does it feel like just yesterday? Or does it seem like ages ago – like some distant era?

Of course, time is precise. It takes 23.9 hours for the Earth to make one rotation on its axis. But that’s not how we experience time. Instead, internally, it’s often something we feel or sense, rather than objectively measure.

It turns out our emotional state tends to play a big role in our perception of time – a dynamic that I’ve studied for 10 years. Much research has shown that relative to an emotional negative state, a positive one makes time appear to pass more quickly.

Back in the early days of the pandemic, when it became clear that the virus would upend our everyday lives, it wasn’t a stretch to assume that the coming weeks and months would be an emotional roller coaster.

Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, my team and I developed a smartphone application to document the emotions, perceptions and behaviors of Americans during the pandemic on a month-by-month basis. We’ve been able to track the extent to which Americans’ internal clocks went haywire – and explore why this might have happened.

The turbulence of time

There’s truth to the aphorism “time flies when you’re having fun.” On the other hand, the opposite seems to occur when we’re scared, sad or anxious. For example, people often remark how car wrecks or accidents seem to happen in slow motion.

Why does this happen?

Emotion and motivation are intertwined. Emotion compels us to act in certain ways, whether it’s diving into a project when we’re excited or hiding when we’re terrified. The former is called “approach motivation,” while the latter is called “avoidance motivation.”

My team and I have been able to show how approach motivation causes our sense of time to speed up, but avoidance motivation causes it to slow down. The more motivation we feel in either direction, the more pronounced the change in our perception of time.

This happens for a reason. When we’re motivated to do something, we have a goal in mind, whether it’s finishing a puzzle or evading a car that’s blown a red light.

The speeding or slowing of time may help us achieve these goals. When time passes more quickly, it makes it easier to pursue a goal for a longer period of time. Think about a hobby you enjoy and how time passes more quickly when you’re engaged with it.

In contrast, when avoidance motivation is triggered, time slows down to prevent us from lingering in potentially harmful situations. If time seems like it’s dragging when you’re frightened or disgusted, you’ll act more quickly to get yourself out of harm’s way.

Our pandemic clocks

It’s this avoidance situation that many of us found ourselves in at the beginning of the pandemic. There was this threat that we wanted to evade, but since we couldn’t see it, we were left trying to avoid a range of potentially harmful situations. Because these included routine activities like shopping and exercising, our avoidance motivation was constantly triggered.

If you felt like time slowed down during the early days of the pandemic, you weren’t alone.

In April, we asked 1,000 Americans how time seemed to be passing during March. About half said they felt time dragged and a quarter indicated that time passed more quickly than normal. The remaining quarter reported that they didn’t experience a change in the passage of time.

Whether time slowed or sped up was most closely related to people’s emotions. Those who reported that they were most nervous or stressed also indicated that time passed more slowly, while those who felt happy or glad tended to experience time passing more quickly.

Our findings also revealed that people who tended to experience the slowing of time practiced social distancing more often. So while time slowing down might be an unpleasant side effect of anxiety and avoidance, the behaviors did end up benefiting society.

In April, about 10% of our sample moved from feeling like time dragged to feeling like time flew. More people were feeling relaxed and calm, and interestingly, it was these positive feelings, along with the perception of time flying, that predicted whether people would engage in social distancing. So it’s possible that people’s improved mood and the shift in their perception of time motivated their willingness to socially distance.

Still, there was a big chunk who felt – and probably still feel – that time is dragging.

Fortunately, if you feel this way, you can do something about it. Exercise, hobbies and a routine help speed up your perception of time. Sure, it might not “fly by,” but its pace could quicken just enough to make you feel a little better.

The Conversation

This post originally appeared at The Conversation. Follow @ConversationUS on Twitter.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.