The Edge of Choice

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So Long Ago, Yet So Close

Some things feel like they took place ages ago, others just yesterday

How far away does the last Presidential Election feel? What about a birthday celebration you had in 2008? There’s a good chance that the election feels as if it occurred recently while your birthday seems comparatively further away. But why would it be the case that two things that happened around the same point in time could feel so temporally different?

Previous research has shown that many characteristics of a event—how emotional, memorable, and how objectively far away it was—all serve to influence our subjective judgments of when something occurred. But, when we estimate the relative distance between now and some target occurrence, thinking about the event itself is just half of the equation.

More recent research has focused on how people conceptualize the intervening time period between now and the target event.

Namely, in one study, Gal Zauberman, Jonathan Levav, Kristin Diehl, and Rajesh Bhargave had undergraduates think about the day they received their college acceptance letter. One group of undergrads was asked to come up with a single related event that was triggered by the acceptance letter (e.g., putting down a deposit or buying a college sweatshirt) while another group was asked to generate a list of four related events.

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All of the students were then asked to judge how long ago it seemed since they had received their offer letter. Note that there’s an obvious objective way to answer this question: if I got my college acceptance letter one year, two months, and six days ago (I didn’t, in case you were thinking that I was some sort of college prodigy writing this blog post), then I could easily say that approximately 14 months have passed since that date. But Zauberman and colleagues asked about subjective time, that is, how long ago it feels like something happened (on a scale ranging from “feels very recent” to “feels very distant”), rather than how long ago it actually did happen.

Even though the students in the study received their acceptance letters around the same time (about two years earlier on average), they didn’t necessarily feel as though they did. The folks who thought of four related events felt that more time had passed than the undergrads who thought of just one related event. But there was no difference in time estimation for the people who thought of four unrelated events (that is, the news items) compared to one unrelated event. In other words, to affect time estimation, events must be related to the target occurrence. All results remained significant when the researchers held other factors constant (for example, how emotional or memorable it was to receive the acceptance letter).

In a follow-up study, Zauberman and colleagues had undergrads come into the lab and choose a charity to donate to among a group of options. Over the course of the next month, the researchers emailed the students either one time or four times and asked them to engage in some relevant activities like thinking of other charities or listing reasons for their original choice. After the month had elapsed, all of the students were asked to estimate how long it seemed like they were in the lab. The research participants who had had four relevant events occur over the course of the month felt that more time had passed since they visited the lab than did the participants who only had one relevant event take place.

The bottom line here? When we call to mind several relevant events—that is, things that are relevant to a target event—then the target event will actually feel more distant to us. If, on the other hand, we think of relatively few related events, then the target event will feel like it “just” occurred. The presence of many related events “fills” up the time interval between when something happened and now.

Generally, the ’08 presidential election feels relatively close in time because there hasn’t been another election in the meantime; my birthday from that year, however, feels further away because I’ve had four since then. What’s fascinating here is the role that subjective experience plays. Someone who works on the Obama campaign (or is very involved in politics) probably feels like the 2008 election happened a long time ago because they can easily think of several related events (say, major presidential milestones) that have occurred between 2008 and now.

Practically speaking, having the sense that more time has passed between now and a previous event may, as Zauberman and colleagues note, actually make us engage in a relevant behavior like donating to a charity or going to the dentist sooner.

What remains to be seen is whether subjective feelings about the future can be altered in similar ways. You might think that a major future event like retirement is very far away if you consider 5 or 6 other major financial milestones between now and then (buying a house, paying for college, etc.). But if calling to mind only one or two relevant events makes retirement feel subjectively closer, you may actually be prompted to save more.

Hal E. Hershfield, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business.

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