Increasingly, psychologists have become interested in how people perceive the passage of time. What exactly is going on when time seems to fly compared to when it seems to crawl?

According to recent research by Sam Maglio (University of Toronto) and colleagues, one surprising answer appears to be geography: Perceptions of physical distance can seep into perceptions of temporal distance.

To illustrate, imagine you are starting a new job in one month. Now, alternatively, imagine that you are starting the same job in one month’s time, but in a city across the country. In which instance will that month seem to pass more slowly? According to Maglio and colleagues, time will seem to drag slower if the new job is in your own city. Why might this be?

Their logic is as follows. Psychologists have known for over one hundred years that changes in subjective experience decrease as the overall intensity increases. For example, a one-pound weight feels heavier to you if you add it to the five pounds you are already holding than if you add it to 30 pounds that you’re holding. In other words, the more intense the overall experience, the lower the sensitivity to small changes. The same principle applies to distance: the higher the physical distance, the lower the sensitivity to small changes. Maglio et al.’s first insight is that this principle applies beyond physical distance to metaphorical, psychological “distance”: including temporal distance.

Their second insight is that the mind does not distinguish between types of psychological distance. This means that a higher value in one type of distance (e.g., physical distance) can reduce sensitivity in a second type of distance (e.g., temporal distance). Therefore, you are more sensitive to the passage of time when the act (like starting your new job) is physically close, compared to far away. The reverse is also true: The idea of running ten miles feels more daunting if you have to run right away than if you have to run a year from now. According to their model, the lower acuity that comes with greater temporal distance (a year from now) leads to less sensitivity. Thus, the ten miles “loom larger” in the immediate future than in the distant future. In both the distant future and in distant geographic space, there is a generalized removal from one’s immediate experience—a focus on the ‘big picture’—that leads to less engagement with specific increments.

Is there evidence for this idea that time and distance are psychologically interchangeable?

In one study, participants completed a survey in exchange for a chance to win a cash prize. The winner would be able to access the money online from a bank in New York City (where the participants were located) or in Los Angeles. Participants were asked, if they won, would they prefer a $50 payment immediately or a $65 dollar payment in three months?

The results: 71% of participants in the LA condition chose the larger but delayed reward compared to only 49% in the NYC condition. Normally, people have a hard time transcending the here and now for a larger reward in the future. (This is why people find it so hard to save their money for the future by not buying tempting items they see.) But in this study, a simple change in the location of the bank made people much better savers! Thus sensitivity to time decreases as spatial distance increases.

What about the reverse? In another study, participants were asked to imagine receiving a free pass to a museum that was scheduled to open at a location exactly 27 miles from their home. Half were told the museum would open in one week while the other half were told it would open in a year. So here time space is kept constant but time is varied.

The results: On a 1-7 rating scale, participants indicated that the 27 mile distance felt shorter when the museum was going to open in a year (3.54) compared to next week (4.43). Participants also expressed a greater desire to attend to the museum in the one year condition than in the one week condition.

On the one hand, these results provide fascinating theoretical insight into how different types of distance seem to share a common underlying metric. People treat metaphorical types of “distance” (like the distant future) exactly the same as they treat real, physical distance. On the other hand, these findings suggest at least one interesting take-home message: Should you store your money in a bank that is located in a far away location rather than in the bank down the street? According to these findings, if you do so, you will be less likely to dip prematurely into your savings.

Reference:

Maglio, S.J., Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2013). Distance from a distance: Psychological distance reduces sensitivity to any further psychological distance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142,644-657.

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