Sunday, December 14, 2014

Why do pleasant experiences go by so quickly?

When you get married, everyone tells you to “try to slow down and enjoy the night” and it just “goes by so fast” and “I don’t remember a thing from my wedding.” Anecdotally, I can certainly relate to the “time flies when you’re having fun” adage, but as a psychologist I can’t help but wonder why? Do we perceive time as passing quickly because we are paying less attention? Remember less? Are aroused?

Dr. Philip Gable and his research team at the University of Alabama published an article in Psychological Science in 2012 examining some of these very complex questions. Specifically, they asked:

Why do pleasant experiences go by so quickly?

They argued that something called “approach motivation” is the driving force behind this phenomenon. Approach motivation describes positive experiences as they relate to our pursuit of goals, and approach motivation is high when we are actively pursuing our goals and are feeling desire or excitement. In comparison, approach motivation is low when we have already achieved our goals and are experiencing serenity and contentment. To do this, they conducted 3 experiments; first to see whether more approach motivation was related to perceptions of time, second to test whether expectations of achieving a goal influenced perceptions of time, and then to see whether arousal explains these results.

In the first experiment, they recruited 140 undergraduate students to come to the laboratory. They asked each participant how long it had been since they had last eaten. Then, they had each participant view 189 images that were either high in approach motivation (e.g., desserts), low in approach motivation (e.g., flowers), or neutral (e.g., shapes). Each photo was displayed for a different amount of time, and the participants were asked whether the image was displayed for a long or short amount of time. Thus, people with a high proportion of images labeled as short, were perceiving time as passing faster. They found that people were more likely to say that the dessert photos were on the screen for a short amount of time than the other two categories of images. They also found that this result was strongest among the individuals who hadn’t eaten in the longest amount of time, presumably the hungriest participants. Thus, participants in pursuit of their goal, eating, thought time was passing faster when viewing images related to that goal.

Ok, pretty convincing right? Not to Gable and Poole. The findings of the first study led the researchers to wonder whether this effect can be manipulated by the expectation of achieving a goal. They also wondered whether images of desserts are simply more captivating than images of shapes or flowers, in which case time is perceived faster simply due to attention. Thus, they conducted another study where 84 participants came to the lab to look at images of only desserts.  The researcher told half of the participants that they would get to eat the desserts at the end of the experiment, while the others were not. Each participant viewed 36 images of desserts for variable lengths of time. After each image, the participants indicated whether the image seemed to “drag” or “fly.” This allowed them to see whether the expectation of achieving their goal of eating desserts made time seem to move faster. Lo and behold, it did. Participants that were told they would get to eat desserts perceived time as moving faster than the other participants.

Then, Gable and Poole wondered whether this finding was better accounted for by arousal. In other words, are people who are hungry and looking at images of desserts more likely to perceive time as going faster just because they are aroused?  To answer this question, they conducted another experiment. In this experiment, they recruited another group of 129 participants who came to the laboratory to view 126 new images. This time, the images were either high in negative arousal (they didn’t specify but in psychology these are usually images of flesh wounds or violence) or high in positive arousal (such as those of delicious foods). Just like in the first study, each image appeared for variable amounts of time and at the end of each image, the participant indicated whether the image displayed for a long or short time. They found that high positive arousal images led participants to perceive time as passing more quickly than high negative arousal images.

Overall, they conducted three experiments to demonstrate that people perceive time as passing more quickly when they are in pursuit of a positive goal. I find this really fascinating to think about. For me, this means that I can try and manipulate how quickly time seems to be passing by controlling my thoughts about the goal at hand. For example, when I want to savor every moment of an experience, I can practice being present and not focusing on the goal of the moment such as eating, drinking, or finding companionship. In plain English, this could mean that if I want to enjoy my sister’s graduation from nursing school, I should try not to think of hugging and congratulating her at the end of it. However, if I am interested in time moving more quickly, for example in the infamously long line at Pink’s hot dog stand in Los Angeles, I should hold thoughts of what I am going to order in my mind as I proceed through the line.

Like any study, this research should be considered within the context of several limitations. Most importantly, ecological validity. Ecological validity is a term used in science to describe how much behavior displayed in a laboratory translates into behavior in the “real world.” Put more simply, being more likely to say a photo was shown for a “short” amount of time, may not capture what is happening during your wedding or other major life event, when presumably you are experiencing a range of emotions, feeling hungry, eating, drinking, dancing, hugging, crying, taking photos, and listening to speeches. Regardless, these three studies are a great example of how psychologists take questions and turn them into experiments, and how those experiments lead to more questions about how the human mind works.


Gable, P. A., & Poole, B. D. (2012). Time flies when you're having approach-motivated fun: effects of motivational intensity on time perception. Psychological science, 23(8), 879-886.doi: 10.1177/0956797611435817.

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