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 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.
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.
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.