Computer Use and the Perception of Time

By Blatchley, Barbara; Dixon, Rosemary et al. | North American Journal of Psychology, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Computer Use and the Perception of Time


Blatchley, Barbara, Dixon, Rosemary, Purvis, Alicia, Slack, Julia, Thomas, Terri, Weber, Nekia, Wiley, Courtney, North American Journal of Psychology


Americans have become accustomed to completing their daily tasks more quickly than ever before, thanks to the advent of labor-saving devices like the computer. Our study sought to ascertain if the ubiquitous computer has affected time perception. Forty subjects, ranging in age from 6 to 71 years, volunteered to participate. They were asked to complete a brief survey assessing daily computer use and to judge the duration of a series of time intervals ranging from 3 to 27 s without using a counting method. Computer use was significantly and negatively correlated with the size of the error made in the time estimation task. Those participants who reported the highest daily computer use tended to be the most accurate in estimating the passage of time. Time urgency, education level and age were all significantly correlated with accuracy. The results are discussed in terms of both cognitive and socio-cultural models of time perception.

"Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity."

Henry Van Dyke, Time Is.

As the poem quoted here eloquently suggests, the passage of time is perceived in different ways by each of us. Cognitive theories suggest that time perception is a function of an internal clock that regularly generates pulses representing real time. These pulses feed into an accumulator, which then shares information about accumulated pulses with both working and long-term or reference memory (Gibbons & Church, 1984, cited in Grondin, 2001). The organism then generates a decision about the passage of time based on the information available in memory. Variables that affect cognitive functioning, or variables that affect the physiological functioning of the internal clock, would then be expected to alter time perception in some way.

Researchers have described several factors that affect the perception of time. For example, a number of studies have found that age is a factor in accuracy of time judgments and that both young children and older adults are less accurate in judging the passage of time than are adults (Block, Zakay, & Hancock, 1998; McCormack, Brown, Maylor, Darby, & Green, 1999). Gender has also been shown to affect time estimations. Vercruyssen & Rodenburg (1992) found that females tended to underestimate the duration of a short interval of time (11 s), while males tended to overestimate it. Block, Hancock, & Zakay (2001) found that females tended to be more variable in their judgments than were males. Practice has also been shown to affect performance on a time estimation task. For example, Allan & Kristofferson (1974) found that extensive practice with timing tasks reduced variability on that task, perhaps through a change in memory processing.

Finally, a number of studies have shown that one's culture, the pace of life within a culture and the way in which one's culture views time itself, can also have a profound effect on how individuals perceive time. Hill, Block, & Buggie (2000) found that while Black Americans, White Americans and Black Africans shared similar beliefs about physical time, there were significant differences in beliefs about personal time across the three cultural groups. Jones (1988) describes cultures as having a "future time perspective" (a high value placed on distal or future goals) and a "present time perspective" (a high value placed on proximal goals) and argues that the specific demands of the culture one lives in create environments that demand a particular temporal perspective.

One particularly influential aspect of modern culture is the development of new technologies, in particular the computer and access to the internet. Computers and the virtually instantaneous access to information they offer have become commonplace. The U.S. Census Bureau (2005) found that in 2003, 62% of American households had one or more computers, and 55% had internet access. …

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