Time Flies

Time Flies

Most people agree that time flies when you're having fun, but time also flies when you're taking an impossible math test. A recent study may explain why.


A study of time gone by. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

We've all heard the saying "time flies when you're having fun." But according to psychologists Anthony Chaston and Alan Kingstone at the University of Alberta in Canada, "fun" isn't necessarily the right word.


I guess more accurately what we found in this study, is time flies whenever your attention is really engaged in an activity, and you're trying to monitor the passage of time.

The researchers asked volunteers to search for hidden objects in a picture–kind of like "Where's Waldo?"–and to mentally keep track of the time. The more demanding the game, the lower their estimates were. Dr. Chaston says that's because demanding tasks take your attention away from timekeeping.


Imagine you had a little counter in your head, an internal clock, which most people believe the brain has, in some form. To monitor the passage of time, you sort of have to monitor, or add up, and count and collect those little clicks. Right? You have to keep track of how many are going by. But if your attention is devoted to a different task, like the visual search task, then you sometimes will miss the clicks that come by.

That could explain why time flies when you're absorbed in any stimulating activity–a stressful shift at work, an exciting game of football, or even a good book–and drags when you're bored. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

As Dr. Chaston suggests, the trouble with the saying "time flies when you're having fun" is that time often seems to pass quickly when you're definitely not having fun. For example, time may fly when you're scrambling to finish an essay test, working at a hectic job, or trying to clean a messy room. The goal of this study was to examine the real psychology behind the old saying.

"Fun" is a hard thing to study anyway, since everyone has a different idea of what "fun" is, and it can't be measured objectively. So the researchers decided to focus on the question of attention. But even that presented challenges. In most real-life situations–working at an ice cream shop on a hot day, for example–your attention is engaged in many different ways: you're trying to scoop the ice cream efficiently but carefully, watching what you're doing; listening to customers, bosses, co-workers, and maybe the radio too; remembering how to make different sundaes; moving around in the shop; calculating prices; keeping an eye on empty cartons; cleaning up accidents, and so on.

So Chaston and Kingstone narrowed their study even further to visual attention: in other words, looking for something. Giving their subjects a single, specific activity in a controlled environment made it possible to change the difficulty of the activity (and therefore, how much attention it required) without changing much else about the situation.

The complications don't stop there. Chaston points out that psychologists actually recognize two different ways of estimating time. The first is called prospective estimation. That's when you're told in advance to keep track of the time while you're doing an activity. The other is called retrospective estimation. In this situation, you're not told that you're going to be asked how long the activity took, but the question is sprung on you after it's all over. Chaston and Kingstone studied prospective estimates, partly because this had been studied more widely before, and partly because they felt that modern people are always at least somewhat attuned to keeping track of the time.

Their result suggests that doing a task competes for attention with keeping track of the time. People who were more engaged in their task, because it was harder, tended to underestimate the amount of time that had actually passed. To take this back to real life, remember how quickly time passes when you're taking a long or difficult test. Now compare that to taking an easy, no-brainer test where you aren't allowed to leave class when you're done. After you finish, you might doodle, fidget, or think about what you're going to do over the weekend, but the time seems to drag by.

This study also explains another old saying: "A watched pot never boils." If you've ever actually waited for a pot of water to boil, you can probably relate to this. Staring at a pot of water is pretty boring and doesn't take much attention, which makes the time drag. But if you do something else while you're waiting, like talk on the phone or play a video game, it will seem as though the water boils almost instantly. Or you might even forget to check it, until it all boils away and the pot starts burning.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. According to this study, if time flies when you're having fun, what's really happening?
  2. What is the difference between prospective and retrospective time estimation?
  3. Why did the researchers choose such a simple task for this study?
  4. Do the results of this study seem to agree with your own personal experience? Why or why not?
  5. If you were going to study the effect of listening, rather than visual attention, on time estimation, what kind of task would you design? Justify your answer.

For Educators

Tiem slows for people who stop smoking, an article in New Scientist, discusses a Penn State University study on the effect of cigarette smoking on time perception.

The article Locating the Timekeeping Centers in the Brain discusses research into the neurology of timekeeping.

The Experience and Perception of Time, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, looks at time from a philosophical and psychological perspective.

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