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Can Victoria's Secret Twist Time?

How sex, cars, and drugs skew time perception.

by Alan Yu

Meditation not working for your man? Try flashing him a couple Victoria's Secret ads. A new study shows that's a surefire way to get him more focused on the present moment.

Researchers led by Professor Gal Zauberman of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Professor Kyu Kim at the USC Marshall School of Business recruited 54 heterosexual males, and split them into two groups. Half the participants looked at a Victoria's Secret catalog and the rest looked at images of rocks or trees. Then, each was asked to draw how long they thought one month, three months, six months, and so on would look like on a linear scale. Finally, all participants were asked to predict how happy they would be if they got $100 now, and how happy they would be if they got $100 in one month. They assigned scores to show happiness, and when given the choice of getting the money in a month, those who looked at the underwear models drew longer timelines and reported lower levels of happiness than those who looked at rocks and trees. Thus aroused males saw the future as being further away and valued a delayed reward less.

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This phenomenon is more than hot-blooded distraction caused by a lingerie model. The researchers believe future discounting is a general response to all types of arousal, including fear. To investigate this possibility, Zauberman and Kim repeated the study with 180 men divided into three groups. One group viewed nude women (the sexual arousal condition), one looked at women in sportswear (the control condition) and the last looked at violent images, such as a man threatening a woman with a knife (the fear condition). The researchers found no significant differences in time perception between men who looked at nude women and men who looked at violent imagery.

Zauberman and Kim propose that arousal, induced by fear, sex, or other factors, has the same effect. Kim even suggests improving the setup by arousing participants directly rather than through sexual cues. One way is to give them methamphetamine. They offer two possible explanations: either arousal makes time pass more quickly, or it puts men in a “survival mode” that makes them respond quickly to present tasks, such as having sex to reproduce or escaping danger.

Though he's only tested males, Kim believes women might also be induced to focus on the immediate present under conditions of arousal. However, he points out, females tend to be less receptive to visual sexual stimuli—so it might take more than David Beckham's Super Bowl ads to elicit the same arousal response in women.

A team of psychologists at McMaster University in Canada came close to replicating the same effects in women, though not to the same degree: Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, whose early work provided the basis for Zauberman and Kim's current study, recruited both male and female participants to rank images of the opposite sex or cars, then choose to receive a small sum of money tomorrow or a large sum after several days. Men who looked at beautiful women opted for the sooner but smaller sum, discounting the future in favor of the present. Women had a similar, though less significant, preference for the sooner but smaller sum when looking at flashy cars.

The difference in women's susceptibility to being aroused by sexual imagery may stem from how men and women think about sex. When asked to explain why sexual cues make men more aroused than women, Daly recalls Wilson (who passed away in 2009) saying, “You've got to stay alive and raise the baby if you're a woman, or you've got to be a hit-and-run inseminator if you're a man.”

Daly is pleased that Zauberman and Kim's results are consistent with his own findings, but he questions which comes first: Do men discount the future because they focus on the present, or is it the other way around? Both the mechanism and reason behind this phenomenon, Daly stresses, are unclear. The study is being edited by a journal for publication.

Regardless of gender, how much we value the future drives many of our decisions. Do you watch the movie tonight, or can you wait for it on Netflix in a couple of months? Do you buy new jeans today, or wait for summer sales? Do you satisfy your cravings with a drive-thru cheeseburger, or do you take the time to put together a salad-to-go ?

There is no exhaustive guide to all the buttons you can push to influence someone's time perception. As with many measures, how you see time is far from fixed. For now, if you want your partner to stop dreaming about the future, just keep a couple Victoria's Secret catalogs or copies of Motor Trend handy.

 

Alan Yu is an editorial intern at Psychology Today.

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