Losing Patience: How Positive Feelings Influence Our Perception of Time

Two experiments show how emotions distort the perception of time and thereby influence decisions

February 07, 2019

Should I save up for my journey around the world or treat myself to the weekend trip? Should I go to fitness class to get my body in shape for the beach or do I order pizza? Will I stay in and revise this evening or go out to see a movie? We often have the choice between a small short-term reward and a large future reward. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development were able to determine the role of emotions during these decisions in two experiments. They showed that the positive emotions elicited by the rewards distort our perception of future periods of time and thereby strengthen our impatience. The study’s findings were published in the journal Emotion.

Although we intend to save up or work towards a greater reward—a round-the-world journey, a body in shape for the beach, a good qualification, we often decide impulsively and select short-term and smaller rewards—the weekend trip, the pizza, the movie. Large rewards then become more difficult to achieve. Allowing impulsive decisions to gain the upper hand and only going for the quick rewards can cause us problems in the long run. This is why not only researchers but also therapists, educators, and doctors are interested in how the psychological mechanisms behind such—often subconscious—decisions work.

A new study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development was able to reveal a previously unknown reason for impulsive behavior. The positive emotions elicited by thoughts about the rewards on offer lead to a distorted perception of time. The period until the round-the-world trip or the successful qualification feels subjectively longer than it is. And so many people decide in favor of the short-term reward.

As a PhD student at the Center for Adaptive Rationality, Corinna Laube carried out two independent but similarly arranged experiments with 23, respectively 56 participants. The participants listed their favorite leisure activities and estimated their value in Euros. They were then asked to select between two options: a cheaper activity, e.g., mini-golf, today, or a more expensive one, e.g., going to a spa, in two weeks? In the next step, they were also offered the sum of money matching the activities. For instance, they could get 15 Euro today or 40 Euro in two weeks. Finally, the participants had to provide their subjective rating of the future periods of time when they were thinking of the leisure activity or the money: Do two weeks feel long or short?

The results showed that surprisingly, participants more often decided in favor of the smaller but immediate reward than in favor of the smaller sum of money. The same period of time seemed longer to them when they thought about their favorite leisure activities than when they only thought about the equivalent sum of money. The positive emotions in reaction to leisure activities thus lead people to perceive future periods of time as lasting longer, whereas the thought of money elicits rather fewer emotions and does not influence the perception of time. Accordingly, two weeks until a visit of the spa feel longer than two weeks until the payout of 40 Euro.

„Decisions that are linked to positive feelings lead to an altered perception of future periods of time, which leads people to act more impulsively,“ says Corinna Laube, meanwhile a researcher at the Center for Lifespan Psychology. „These results may allow the development of new psychotherapeutic treatments for people with a tendency to decide impulsively. A person who has learned to judge future periods of time more objectively and realistically is likely to be more patient and to find it easier to wait for the larger reward.“

Original Publication
Laube, C., & van den Bos, W. (2018). It’s about time: How integral affect increases impatience. Emotion. Advance online publication. doi:10.1037/emo0000553

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