Americans strongly believe (with some justification) that “time” and “money” are tangible things. There are, after all, 24 hours in a day and a hundred cents in every dollar. Common sense tells us that time and money are real things, tangible and largely unchangeable. As Jordan Weissmann of The Atlantic recently noted:
If the collective obsessions of the Internet have confirmed anything lately, it’s that a thick slice of America feels very, very busy. First, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” sucked the world into a conversation about just how hard it is to balance a high-powered career with family. Then came Tim Kreider’s cri de calm, “The Busy Trap.” We all need to stop feeling so self-satisfied over our packed schedules and enjoy a little indolence, Kreider argued. Busy chatter ensued.
Weissmann than shared a great research paper from 2005 that illustrates how “time” and “money” are, more than anything else, cultural constructs. The report, “Stressed Out on Four Continents: Time Crunch or Yuppie Kvetch?” by Economics Prof. Daniel Hamermesh of the University of Texas, finds that people with higher incomes report feeling more stressed for time (even when they report having the same or more free time than lower-income people). It turns out that making more money doesn’t buy you extra time to spend it. People who make more money perceive time as more valuable, and they feel the clock ticking away more acutely.
Why is it so widely assumed that, generally speaking, we all have less time than we used? We are not all, after all, high income earners. The world still spins on its axis the way it always used but people “feel” that their world is moving faster. This perception is so ingrained that it is hard to convince them otherwise. In fact, contrary to the internet babble, reliable studies of the “time budget” of a wide variety of people in America and around the world show that people, in general, actually have a little bit more “free time” than they used.
Both assertions “people have more free time” and “people feel like they have less free time” can be true. The explanation lies in the murky intersection of psychology, demography and culture. How people perceive the passage of time is largely shaped by the interaction of “time” with related concepts of “information” and, of course, “money.”
Time and Information`
Adults, especially middle aged and older adults, are familiar with the feeling that time itself seems to be moving faster than ever before. This perception is not unique to the modern era. A range of contemporary studies have failed to isolate one’s age as the key factor in the sensation of time “speeding up.” What does seem to matter is how busy a person is, not matter what their age might be. This observation takes us much closer to the real issue which is that a person’s perception of the passage of time is driven in large part by the amount of information being processed by the mind.
We can see this effect at work in a simple way by recalling the childhood memory of a night-time drive home from a family vacation. In the darkened backseat, the minutes, seemed to many, to pass like hours yielding the immortal question, “Are we there yet?” The same drive encountered years later while sitting behind the wheel and, chatting on the phone, jumping between radio stations, criticizing the fellow who just cut you off and taking note of the “for sale” signs in front of houses, the number of miles might be the same but the time seems to pass much more quickly.
When it comes to the perception of time passing, the human mind is nothing like a stopwatch. The speed of time is shaped in large part by the rate at which the mind encounters and processes information. As the brain’s information processing moves faster the perception of time likewise accelerates.
A much more scientific approach to testing the impact of information processing on the perception passing time was carried out by Robert Orenstein in the 1960’s. He tested the accuracy of people’s “inner clocks” by playing tapes of the same length but with varying level of interest, low information tapes had a sparse collection of clicking sounds, high information tapes had many more and more varied types of sounds. Orenstein then asked participants how long they believed they had been listening to each tape. He found that when people listened to the “high information” tapes they believed that the tape was longer than it really was. When they listened to the “low information” tapes they thought the tape was shorter than it really was. In other words the act of processing more information created the sense that the seconds had passed faster and that more time had gone by than had actually passed.
A radical illustration of the elasticity of the human perception of time can be found in Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch 22.” One of the characters is an airman named “Dunbar” who had undertaken, in the midst of the Second World War, the radical project of pursuing immortality. “He did it by cultivating boredom. Dunbar was working so hard at increasing his lifespan that Yossarian thought he was dead.” Heller was making “comic” use of the idea that a life lived with a great deal of boredom will seem to pass much more slowly (low information), the hours will “crawl” by. A similar trait can be found in the memories that many in the Post War generation have of a summer vacation that seemed to last forever.
One of the reasons that time seems to pass more quickly is that we live in a society where people process more information per unit time than they used to. It isn’t that people are working more or have less time in fact a review of time diaries shows that people work, on the average, about 35 hours per week of work time and have about 35 hours per week of free time. How do we reconcile the objective fact that weekly hours of work have remained fairly consistent over time and weekly hours of leisure have actually increased over the past half century with the feeling that time pressure is increasing? How can it be that we have more time but feel like we have less?
Professor Philip Zimbardo provides just about the best answer I’ve seen to that question: