Ordinarily, people perceive the passage of time in a predictable manner. You can assess that perception by showing subjects images that elicit a strong positive or negative emotional reaction. High-arousing negative images (such as a dismembered body) seem to persist for longer than high-arousing positive images (erotic images). This is true even when both images are flashed on a screen for the exact same amount of time. But can having a sense of control over events alter those perceptions? I’m glad you asked.
Simona Buetti and Alejandro Lleras from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign set out to answer that question by showing pictures of spiders (among other things) to some extreme arachnophobics. You can see an example to the left.
Volunteers were first trained to discriminate between images flashed for a long (1600 ms) or short (400 ms) time interval. They were then shown a mixture of positive and negative images. Each image was shown for one of seven time durations ranging from 400 to 1600 ms, and subjects were asked to judge whether it appeared for closer to the short interval or closer to the long interval. As expected, those who were the most fearful of spiders overestimated the time duration of the spider images the most.
In different experiments, subjects were instructed to try to maximize the number of positive images or to minimize the number of negative images by pressing a sequence of buttons before each image appeared. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the computer was preset to display a specific percentage of negative images (either 75% or 25%) regardless of which buttons were pressed. Participants had a much greater illusion of control when they were shown mostly positive pictures. They thought they were successfully influencing which images were being shown.
When people felt more in control of what was shown they did not perceive the usual temporal distortions. That is, pictures of spiders did not appear to linger for longer than other pictures. In contrast, when people felt they had little or no control over which images were displayed, the usual pattern of time distortion was observed.
Interestingly, when people were asked to try to maximize the number of negative images, a situation contrary to the subjects’ personal preferences, the illusion of control did not prevent time distortion. Apparently, it’s only when you think you’re manipulating events to get a result you like that you become inoculated against time distortion perceptions.
Buetti, S., & Lleras, A. (2012). Perceiving Control Over Aversive and Fearful Events Can Alter How We Experience Those Events: An Investigation of Time Perception in Spider-Fearful Individuals Frontiers in Psychology, 3 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00337