Time Flies When You're Having Fun:
The Influence of Continuous Attention on the Perception of Time

Chelsea Donaldson
Briana Paulman
University of Oklahoma

Keywords: time perception, attention, temporal processing, time estimation, attentional resources


Attentional models of time perception suggest that when more attention is given to non-temporal information processing, less attentional resources are allocated to temporal processing, which results in misperceptions of time. The current study sought to support these models through manipulating attention toward a slideshow, and thus indirectly manipulating the allocated attention toward temporal processing. Although two groups viewed a slideshow of the same duration (102 seconds), the continuous attention group viewed 52 pictures at two seconds each, while the non-continuous attention group viewed 17 pictures at two seconds each plus four-second blank screen intervals between pictures. In accordance with attentional models, we predicted that continuous attention toward the slideshow would result in less accurate time estimations compared to the condition that included blank screen intervals. Results confirmed this hypothesis, suggesting that continuous attention toward a task results in less accurate perceptions of time compared to conditions in which blank screen intervals have allowed for attention to revert back to temporal processing. Although previous research in this area used cognitively active tasks to manipulate attentional resources, the passive nature of the task in this study added a new form of credibility to the attentional models of time perception.


Although the passage of time can be objectively measured with a clock, human perception of time seems to operate on measures of relativity. Numerous factors can influence an individual to feel that time is "flying" or "dragging." Although there have been contradictory findings in research involving time perception, the most commonly accepted theories involve the distribution of attention between temporal and non-temporal information processing. Temporal information processing refers to perceiving temporal properties of an experience, which enable the observer to estimate the duration of passed time (Nittrouer, 1999). The basic concept in attentional models suggests that when more attention is devoted to non-temporal information processing, less attentional resources are given to processing temporal information, which can result in misperceptions of time (Zakay & Block, 1995). Whether this temporal processing mechanism is defined in terms of counting pulses generated by an internal pacemaker (Gibbon, 1991), evaluating the number of contextual changes (Block & Reed, 1978), or calculating other groupings within a time interval, most can agree that temporal processing is not automatic but instead requires attentional resources (Michon & Jackson, 1984).

According to attentional models, estimating time intervals that require more non-temporal information processing should result in greater misperception of time compared to estimating intervals of empty time (i.e., when there is no attention directed to a task). These misperceptions of time are expressed as underestimations in many studies. Lamotte, Izaute, and Droit-Volet (2012) found that participants were more likely to underestimate time intervals when engaged in a dual task compared to a single task, suggesting the source of underestimation was the higher attentional resources demanded for the dual task. Similarly, Chaston and Kingstone (2004) demonstrated that as attentional demands for a search task increased, the estimated time duration decreased.

Woehrle and Magliano (2012) found that participants with high working-memory capacities judged the length of their cognitive task as shorter than those with low working-memory capacities. Because the ability to direct attention is related to working memory capacity, these results suggest that the amount of attention directed toward a stimulus is inversely related to the accuracy of time estimation during that interval. In other words, higher working-memory capacities yield more attention toward the cognitive task and result in less accurate time estimations.

Further evidence validating attentional models of time perception involve the study by Zélanti and Droit-Volet (2012) that found time perception was less accurate for visual than auditory stimuli. This suggests that more attention toward the stimulus and less toward processing time duration is responsible for perceived time distortion because visual stimuli require more executive attention than auditory, thus taking away more attention from temporal processing. Zélanti and Droit-Volet (2011, 2012) also found that adults were able to perceive time more accurately than children, suggesting that the development of executive functions (e.g., focused and prolonged attention) may be correlated with accurate temporal processing.

The attentional models of time perception also coincide with Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi's theory of flow (1990), which explained what occurs when an individual is fully immersed in the activity at hand. These activities are usually intrinsically motivated, in which the reward is in the activity itself rather than the ending product or any external good that might result (e.g. playing a sport or painting). The intense, focused concentration in activities involving flow results in a distortion of time perception, such that the individual seems to underestimate the passage of time (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). The flow theory supports the claim that the most significant factor in underestimating time perception is the focused attention toward an activity involving non-temporal information processing, which takes away attentional resources from estimating time accurately.

The attentional gate model by Zakay and Block (1995) combined various models of time perception to explain the relationship between attentional allocation and estimating time. This model accommodates most internal clock theories by confirming that the mind counts pulses, but also adds that an "attentional gate" controls how many pulses can enter the cognitive counter. If more attention is devoted to temporal processing, the attentional gate is widened and more pulses come through, resulting in more accurate time. Conversely, when more attention is allocated to non-temporal processing, the attentional gate is narrowed, allowing fewer pulses to enter cognition and resulting in misperceptions of time.

With decreased temporal processing, misperceptions can result in both under and overestimations of time, depending on the content of the non-temporal information to which attention is focused. Some studies have suggested that affective states and arousal levels can influence the way we perceive passed time. Relating to the common phrase "time flies when you're having fun," numerous studies have shown that stimuli evoking positive affective states result in a decrease of perceived time when compared to negative affective states (Hornik, 1992; Noulhiane, Mella, Samson, Ragot, & Pouthas 2007; Yamada & Kawabe, 2011). These results were found true for visual stimuli as well as auditory stimuli (Noulhiane et al., 2007). In addition, Gil and Droit-Volet (2012) found that viewing negative emotional pictures lengthened perceived time durations when compared to neutral photos, and this effect increased with the emotion's arousal level in the picture.

The purpose of the present study was to focus on the attentional models of time perception and replicate the findings suggesting that attentional allocation between temporal and non-temporal information processing plays a significant role in time estimation. Estimating a time interval involving a task, in which more attention is allocated to non-temporal information processing, should result in less accurate estimations of time. Conversely, estimating an empty time interval, in which no attention is devoted to a task, should result in more accurate estimations. In order to demonstrate this, we manipulated participants' attention to a task and compared their time estimations for two slideshows of pictures. Although both were exactly 102 seconds long, one slideshow was a continuous stream of pictures (continuous attention condition), while the other had four seconds of blank screen between pictures (non-continuous attention condition). In support of the attentional models of time perception, we predicted that the participants viewing the slideshow of continuous pictures would devote more attention to non-temporal information processing and, therefore, have less attentional resources for accurately estimating time. In the condition in which the blank screen intervals interrupted attention toward the slideshow, we predicted the four-second empty intervals between pictures would be an opportunity for the participants to revert attention back to processing time. This would result in more accurate time estimations compared to the continuous attention condition.



The 40 participants in this study were undergraduate psychology majors at a large public university who agreed to participant in an experiment during their discussion class of Research Methods II: Experimental Design. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: the continuous attention condition that viewed a slideshow of an uninterrupted stream of pictures or the non-continuous attention condition that viewed a slideshow that included blank screen intervals between pictures.


On a computer, participants watched one of two slideshows that were 102 seconds in duration. The continuous attention condition viewed a slideshow of 52 pictures, with each picture displayed for two seconds. The non-continuous attention condition slideshow used the first 17 pictures from the other condition's slideshow, but added four seconds of blank screen between each picture to achieve the equivalent length of 102 seconds. To control for affective states, both slideshows included similar ratios of positive, negative, and neutral pictures.


In order to examine the effects of continuous attention on the perception of time, we manipulated the participants' attention to the slideshow. Continuous attention toward the slideshow was operationalized as viewing a slideshow in which each picture was presented for two seconds and ran in an uninterrupted stream for 102 seconds. Non-continuous attention toward the slideshow was operationalized as viewing a 102 second slideshow in which four-second intervals of blank screen were placed between the two-second pictures. Estimation of time was operationalized as the participant's response to the question, "how long do you think the slideshow was?" This answer was originally recorded exactly how the participant responded (e.g., 1 min 22 sec), and then later translated into seconds (e.g., 82 seconds).

The procedure was otherwise identical for both conditions. Each participant entered the experiment cubicle and was asked to sit in front of the computer. The experimenter told the participants they were going to view a slideshow. They also were asked to refrain from touching the mouse or the keyboard, and to turn off their cell phones. The participants were told to press enter on the keyboard to begin the slideshow and the experimenter exited the cubicle. Once the slideshow was completed, the experimenter re-entered the cubicle and asked, "How long do you think the slideshow was?" The experimenter wrote down the participant's answer, and the participant was debriefed and dismissed.


The purpose of the present study was to investigate the influence of continuous attention on the perception of time. An independent t-test was performed on the participants' deviation from the accurate answer (a score of 0 = 102 seconds). Results showed that participants who viewed the slideshow that required continuous attention had less accurate time estimations (M = -30.75, SD = 36.42) than those who viewed the slideshow that resulted in non-continuous attention due to the empty time intervals (M = 10.75, SD = 64.63), t(38) = -2.50, p < .05. In addition to greater deviation in accuracy, the data presented in Figure 1 show that those experiencing continuous attention toward the slideshow were also more likely to underestimate time, while those viewing the slideshow with blank screen intervals were more likely to overestimate it.


This study examined the influence of continuous attention on the perception of time in order to test attentional models of time perception. Our analysis found that the amount of attention toward the slideshow had a significant influence on the accuracy of time perception. Individuals had less accurate estimations of time if they had continuous attention to the slideshow compared to those whose attention to the slideshow was interrupted by blank screen intervals. These results support our hypothesis that having more attentional resources to a task results in less accurate estimations of time. The blank screen intervals in the non-continuous attention condition provided opportunities for the individual to revert attentional resources back to temporal processing, which resulted in more accurate perceptions of time. These results support prior research showing that having more attentional resources devoted to a task results in misperceptions of time (Chaston & Kingstone, 2004; Lamotte et al., 2012; Zakay & Block, 1995; Zélanti & Droit-Volet, 2012).

Although the main focus of this study was to determine variants in accuracy, it is also important to acknowledge the direction of the time misperceptions in each condition. When individuals had continuous attention to the slideshow, they tended to underestimate time compared to those whose attention was interrupted. These results support numerous studies suggesting that devoting more attention to non-temporal information processing results in underestimations of time due to lack of temporal processing (Block & Zakay, 1997; Chaston & Kingstone, 2004; Lamotte, Izuate, & Droit-Volet, 2012).

The current study adds an interesting component to this area of research. Most studies that supported attentional models of time perception used cognitively active tasks in order to manipulate the participants' attentional resources (e.g., dual tasks, Lamotte et al., 2012; conjunction search task, Chaston & Kingstone, 2004). However, our study's task involved simply viewing a slideshow. Due to its passive nature, it may not require as many attentional resources as the participants engaged in cognitively active tasks. Our study adds a new element to further support the attentional models of time perception by suggesting that continuous attention to non-temporal information processing, whether cognitively active or passive, results in misperceptions of time.

On the other hand, there is a limitation in directly comparing the present study with those that supported the attentional models of time perception. Our study utilized pictures rather than asking the participant to complete a cognitive task. The pictures in the slideshow were not all neutral, but instead involved a diversity of emotions and arousal levels. In this sense, our study was also similar to the time perception studies that manipulated emotion and arousal level. By combining ideas from the research of emotion/arousal levels and the attentional models, our study introduced novel research concepts to this field. Although the emotion and arousal factors may have affected the results in this study, we included a similar ratio of negative, positive, and neutral images in both slideshows so that these factors would have the same effect, and therefore mostly preserve internal validity. Nevertheless, there is a possibility that the extra 35 pictures in the continuous attention condition had an additional emotional effect on the participants compared to those in the other condition, and may have affected their perception of time. Therefore, in order to further confirm the results of this experiment, future research is needed, such as using a slideshow of only neutral pictures.

Another limitation of our study is a possible sampling bias. All participants were undergraduate psychology students who had been participating in other experiments that week. Therefore, they may have been suspicious about the nature of this study. Although we are confident they did not realize it was about measuring the perception of time, they could have thought it concerned memory recall. In this case, they may have given more attention to the slideshow because they thought they would later be tested on it. While impairing our external validity, this limitation maintains our internal validity and may actually work in our favor, by confirming that more focused attention to the slideshow results in less accurate perceptions of time.

A common limitation in all studies involving time perception is that each study involves many variables, which result in contradicting findings in this field. Future research in this area should focus on better isolation of variables that may affect time perception, such as negative/positive stimuli, negative/positive pre-existing emotions, short or long time intervals, prospective/retrospective time estimations, passive/active information processing, etc. In addition, it would be interesting to explore the interaction of attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) with time perception through replicating this study and testing individuals with ADHD. It has been suggested that individuals with ADHD have deficiencies in estimating time (e.g., Meaux & Chelonis, 2003; Smith, Taylor, Rogers, Newman, & Rubia, 2002). Due to inherent deficits in focusing continuous attention, it would be interesting to assess the influences of this study's manipulations on individuals with and without ADHD.


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