A psychological theory helps explain why endless news slows down our perception of time.
Here’s a fact that may be troubling: President Donald Trump’s inauguration was only 20 weeks ago.
Let’s recall just a few of the events that have unfolded since: the ongoing Michael Flynn investigation, votes to repeal Obamacare, James Comey’s firing and explosive testimony, Trump sharing classified information with the Russians, pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, and on and on.
It’s been a nonstop avalanche of news. And here’s a hypothesis, grounded in psychological theory: The sheer amount of news generated by the Trump administration is warping our perception of time, stretching these 20-odd weeks into what feels like an eternity.
The simple explanation: It’s a trick of our memories. The more important things we can remember in a given time period, the more we assume a greater amount of time has passed.
“In general, it seems that passage-of-time judgments are strongly affected by the number and ‘intensity’ of ‘events’ that have occurred in a time period,” John Wearden, a psychologist and author of The Psychology of Time Perception, says in an email. “You’d tend to say that the last few months seemed to last a long time if lots had happened, and to be faster if not much had.”
And it’s not just any memories that make us feel like more time has passed; it’s the more troubling, unusual, and emotionally charged ones that do.
“Yes, jam-packed cycles of important (and problematic) news alter our perception of time,” says Michael Flaherty, a psychology professor at Eckerd College in Florida. Especially if they tug on negative emotions.
Flaherty has authored one of the few field studies to make this connection. In the mid-2000s, he and colleagues conducted interviews in Argentina, which was going through its worst economic crisis in its history. He asked a simple question: Have the past five months passed quickly or slowly?
Around a quarter of the participants said “slowly,” and around half said “quickly.”
What made the difference?
People who felt the time period was filled with routine, not-unusual news events said time passed quickly. “In contrast, those who endured problematic circumstances and suffering, as well as those who experienced intense emotions while waiting for a solution, felt that time had passed slowly,” concluded the study, which had a small sample of around 200 people.
In other words, the more emotionally draining an experience, the longer it feels. (We can hypothesize that the past 20 weeks have felt a lot longer to liberals than to Trump supporters.)
And it’s why, Flaherty explains, you can get this same feeling of having time stretched while in solitary confinement. “Abnormality is what they have in common,” he says. “We pay more attention to our circumstances when conditions are abnormal.” And our attention acts as time markers. The more densely grouped these time markers are, the more we’ll feel like a huge amount of time has passed.
An important caveat: This hypothesis — that paying attention to events makes us perceive time as passing more slowly — still needs some more experimental evidence.
In 2010, psychologist Steve Janssen and a colleague conducted a study on 1,865 adults in the US and UK, asking them to rate how quickly different intervals of time — the past week, month, year, decade, etc. — had passed for them. “Either before or after rating these intervals, participants answered 10 open-ended and 20 multiple-choice questions about news events that had occurred in the last two years,” Janssen says. If participants were reminded of the events before, the theory goes, those prompts should have made them feel like time passed more slowly.
It wasn’t the case. “Our study did not support the hypothesis,” Janssen writes in an email. “But more work needs to be done.”
(Wearden adds, “An additional problem is that it seems impossible to get grant support to do this sort of work.” So some of these questions may remain open for some time.)
In any case, it’s safe to say this period of time in American history — and world history, for that matter — will prove to be extremely memorable. And when we look back on this time period when we’re older, it may take up more room in our memories, which will make it seem like it lasted longer than it did.
And as long as this time period feels abnormal, the longer it will feel.
Further reading: understanding the psychology of the Trump era
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