Does Time Fly When You're Getting Old?

Everyone seems to think so.

The letters I received from husband's grandmother - then in her mid 90's - had two recurrent themes. The first was that she was tired, and that the days seemed to run together. The second was that time seemed to be rushing by with ever increasing speed.

William James

William James

William James would agree. In the 1890's, James' writings on age-related differences in the experience of time reflects both these themes. He wrote that in childhood, experiences are novel and distinct but in adulthood "each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and weeks smooth themselves out in recollection, and the years grow hollow and collapse."

According to Dr. William Friedman, who has spent his career exploring developmental changes in the perception of time, this is the first of four major classes of theories used to explain the widely reported phenomenon that older people experience the passage of time much more quickly than do younger folks.

  • Theory 1 Fewer New Things Happen: We mark the passage of time by the number of novel events that occur. For example, when we're busy time seems to fly by.  When we are bored, with nothing to do, time drags.  As we get older, fewer novel events occur because we've already experienced so many new things. In addition, memory problems make it harder to recall novel events that do occur. Therefore, when we look back and judge the passage of time, what we judge to be one year because one year's worth of expected novel events have ocurred, is actually a much longer period of time. In other words, we feel that one year has passed, but objectively it is a much longer period of time.  Thus time seems to fly.
  • Theory 2 Years are Proportionally Smaller: As we get older, each year is a smaller proportion of our lives. For example, a year is 1/10 of the life of a 10 year old, but 1/70th of the life of a 70 year old. Therefore each year feels shorter relative to all the time we've lived and thus seems to be going by faster.
  • Theory 3 Our Biological Clock Slows Down: As we get older, many bodily processes slow down. As our internal clock runs slower and slower compared to the external calendar, time passes much faster than we expect it to.
  • Theory 4 We Can't Pay Attention to Exernal Cues: We judge time in the short term by paying attention to external clues like clocks, sounds in the background, changing events outside, etc. This is one reason why time really does fly when you're having fun - and drags when you're bored. If you're really concentrating, you don't notice the external world - you focus on what you're doing. As you get older, you have fewer cognitive resources and thus have fewer attentional resources left to focus on external cues to keep track of the passage of time. Because of this, time seems to fly by, just as it does when you're really concentrating.

Great Theories in Search of a Problem?

These are all great theories.  But the question is, does the phenomenon they're trying to explain really exist?  Is there any evidence that people's perception of time speeds up as they get older, or is it an illusion?

Lab studies.  Despite 120 years of theorizing and speculation, few psychologists have actually studied this phenomenon empirically. In addition, most of the people who have, have studied people's judgments of time for short periods that can be manipulated in the laboratory - like 20 seconds. For example, people are asked to hold buttons down for what they think is 20 seconds or to estimate how long a sound lasts.  These tasks are convenient for studying time perception, because people's internal clocks can be manipulated in various ways, further testing the theories.

Unfortunately, these experiments have two major problems. 

  • First, no clear pattern of age differences in time perception emerges from the data.  These studies provide no evidence that older people judge time's passage to be slower. 
  • Second, it turns out that our judgments of very short periods of time are unrelated to our subjective experience of how fast longer periods of time - days, weeks, months, years, or 10 years - go by.  Thus, elegant as these studies are, they tell us nothing about people's judgement of the passage of weeks, months, or years. 

In other words, these are interesting studies, but tell us nothing about the phenoment we're really interested in.

Time in the real world.

Interestingly, no one had systematically asked large samples of younger and older people how they experienced time until 2005, when Wittmann & Lehnhoff did just that. They asked 499 German and Austrian participants aged 14 to 94 how fast time usually passed for them: specifically how fast time (generally), the previous week, the previous month, the previous year, and the previous 10 years usually pass.

What did they find?

VERY LITTLE, but then again, quite a lot. There were no age related differences in the experience of time generally, the last week, the last month, or the last year. The only significant difference (accounting for 9% of the variance) was in how older people experienced the past 10 years.  Here older folks reported time passing more quickly than did middle aged or younger participants.

If you're trying to document a folk belief that seems historically and cross-culturally pervasive, that's not very encouraging.  Was the German sample just odd?

Friedman and his colleague, Steve Janssen, replicated this research in a sample of 1865 16-80 year olds from two countries.  This work was recently published in Acta Psychologica. They tried to test three theories used to explain the reported age differences in the experience in time.

The studies are elegantly designed, experimentally manipulating people's judgments of time (to test the Theory 1 about our flexible ruler of novel, memorable events), used news events to evoke salient memories,  measuring time pressure (when you can't get everything done in a day, you feel time is flying by), and examining difficulty of recall and the number of novel events that had occurred in people's lives.

The results were both clear and surprising.

First, the busier you are, the faster time seems to fly by. These results are robust across all ages.

Second, EVERYONE feels time is flying by. On average, on a scale from -2 (very slowly) to +2 (very fast), people of ALL AGES judged time to be passing fas t (rating it higher than 1). 

Third, age differences were very small, and almost entirely limited - as had been found in the previous study - to the perception of how fast the last 10 years had gone by.

These findings - and those of another study currently under review from another large sample carried out in now a fourth country - all come to the same conclusion:

Does Time Fly When You're Getting Old? Not really, no. But it does fly by when you feel rushed and can't get things done.

When asked why, then, older people seem to feel like time was rushing by faster now than it was when they were younger, Dr. Friedman had two answers. First, he suggested, this is such a strong folk belief that people report what they think they're expected to feel. More importantly, perhaps, he suggested that maybe as we get older, we just don't remember how rushed we felt when we were young. 

Or perhaps, we're ALL just getting busier all the time.

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved


This post is based on the Aging and the Speed of Time presented by Dr. Friedman on 10/14/2010 at Oberlin College.

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