Dr's Casebook: How your expectations might affect your perception of time

My first job after I qualified was as a house surgeon.

Saturday, 10th July 2021, 4:45 pm
Anticipation with both excitement and dread certainly alter our perception of time. Photo: Getty Images
Anticipation with both excitement and dread certainly alter our perception of time. Photo: Getty Images

I worked a one in two rota.

That meant that I was on call every other night and in addition worked every other weekend.

Those weekends on call were incredibly busy and seemed to go on and on, with hardly any sleep at all.

By contrast, weekends off seemed to zip by almost as soon as they started.

After a really gruelling weekend I remember asking my colleague how he had spent his weekend.

He replied that he had spent it painting a wall and then just staring at it to make the time go slower.

Having fun, he said, made time pass too quickly.

The old saying that time flies when you are having fun prompted psychologists to study this.

They found that people judge future positive events as being both farther away and shorter in duration than negative or neutral events.

In other words, the more you look forward to a fun thing, like a holiday, the more likely you are to feel that it’s going to be over far too quickly.

The researchers suggest that the greater the anticipation, the longer it seems to take for it to come.

Also, the excitement about it compresses the time that you can expect to enjoy it.

A negative event in the future, by contrast, will seem to be right around the corner, but its end will seem to stretch out far longer.

A study of almost five hundred people were asked to estimate time of beginning and end of a weekend that they anticipated was going to be either good, terrible or neutral.

When estimating the time to it and its duration on a scale of one to a hundred, they mostly came to the same lengths, except the good event took longer to come and was soon over, while the bad event came very quickly, but lasted longer.

Anticipation with both excitement and dread certainly alter our perception of time.

As people are looking forward to the lifting of restrictions and are keeping a watch on the traffic light system of places they can travel to for a holiday, the more they should try not to focus on time.