Five Common Factors Influencing Our Feelings of Time

Our distorted sense of time can bias our decisions.

Posted Jun 26, 2017

Source: HBRH/Shutterstock

Time is a key factor when individuals make decisions. Time imposes a delay on the satisfaction of our present desires. That is, waiting for rewards lowers their attractiveness. Specifically, the waiting can be viewed as a cost and is weighed against the delayed reward. Thus, delay alone can make a good decision into a bad one, or vice versa.

Time perception (or the duration judgment) refers to the difference between external time and our internal grasp of it. That is, individuals do not perceive time objectively — one year is not perceived to be four times as long as three months. The perception of time as lasting too long is associated with too high of a cost, which leads to the selection of alternatives with more immediate outcomes.

The following outline five common factors that influence how we perceive time:

1. Boredom 

Boredom can alter the perception of time. In fact, a slow passage of time when bored is a prominent feature of boredom. For example, time seems to go painfully slow when you find a class boring, and time flies when you are with your lover. When waiting for an elevator, two minutes can seem to take too long.

2. Impulsivity 

Impulsive individuals experience time differently. They have an altered sense of time, which might explain why they have difficulties in delaying gratification. Impulsive people show a greater tendency to devalue deferred gratification, despite the long-term consequences (Wittmann and Paulus, 2008).

3. Emotion

Time estimates can be distorted by our emotions. Individuals suffering from depression or anxiety may feel that time passes slowly. When we are anxiously waiting for something to happen, we experience a slower passage of time. Also, the adage that time flies when you are having fun has been empirically demonstrated (Droit-Volet and Gil, 2009).

4. Craving 

Individuals in the state of craving experience time differently — time seems to move more slowly. For example, smokers who feel a strong urge to smoke experienced time passing more slowly (Sayette et al., 2005). However, smokers might also attend more strongly to time as they wait for their chance to smoke. Stimulants, including caffeine, tend to make people feel as if time is passing faster. Time considerably speeds up when one is intoxicated. After a few beers you hardly notice the time duration.   

5. Aging 

The older we get, the faster time passes. In contrast, time seems to last longer for children. For example, for a 5-year-old summer seems to stretch out forever, but it goes quite fast for a 50-year-old adult. One idea is that the passage of time speeds up with familiarity. As we get older, things become more familiar to us, and lead to the perception of shorter time intervals (Burdick, 2017). More routine in our lives makes experiences less intensive, and consequently the mind retains them with less clarity. Experiences that are exciting and new provide a long life.

In sum: The dysfunction of our "inner clock" leads to a stronger focus on the present and an overestimation of time. Time can be distorted to appear shorter or longer than it really is. For example, the presence of stores and restaurants within an airport provides distraction during our waiting period and makes waiting more enjoyable. Paying attention to the current activity instead of monitoring the passage of time also makes the time go faster (Eastwood, 2012). This explains why reading a book on a long flight can make the journey seem relatively fast. But when we pay attention to time, it appears to pass slowly.


Burdick Alan (2017), Why  Time Flies, NY:Simon & Schuster.

Droit-Volet, S (2013),  Time perception, emotions and mood disorders, Journal of Physilogy –Paris 4:107: 255-264.

Eastwood, J. D., Frischen, A., Fenske, M. J., and Smilek, D. (2012). The Unengaged mind defining boredom in terms of attention. Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 7, 482–495.

Sayette MA, Loewenstein G, Kirchner TR, Travis T. Effects of smoking urge on temporal cognition. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. 2005;19:88–93.

Wittmann, M. & Paulus, M. P. (2008), Decision making, impulsivity and time perception.

Trends Cogn. Sci.12,7–12.

Zauberman, G, Kim, B. K., Malkoc, S., & Bettman, J. (2009). Time discounting and discounting time. Journal of Marketing Research, 46, 543-556.