ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
We all know the idea that time flies when you're having fun but some scientists wondered if the reverse is true. Could you be tricked into thinking you had fun if you were made to believe that time had flown by?
NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce explains.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Fun isn't the only thing that can make time seem to speed up. So does drinking coffee or being on an adrenaline rush. Aaron Sackett is a psychology researcher at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. He wondered whether people's experiences, their sense of having fun or not, might be affected just by how fast time seems to be going by. He wanted to test this but he knew he couldn't change the actual speed of time itself.
Dr. AARON SACKETT (Psychology Researcher, University of St. Thomas): What we had to do instead is focus on speeding up or slowing down the perceived, or felt, passage of time from an individual's perspective.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They did this by lying to people. University students would come into the lab. Their cell phones would be turned off, watches taken away, supposedly so they could concentrate on a little task. They were told to read a text and underline all words with double letter combinations, like apple or mammal. Sackett says everyone was going to be doing this task for exactly 10 minutes.
Dr. SACKETT: But that's not what we told them. We told half of our participants that they were going to be spending less time than that.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They were told: you'll do this for five minutes. The other volunteers were told: you'll do this for 20 minutes. So you can imagine everyone's surprise later on when someone came in and said okay time's up.
Dr. SACKETT: For participants who thought that they had only been doing this task for five minutes, what they're thinking is: My gosh, those five minutes seemed to last forever. It felt more like, say, maybe 10.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Meanwhile, the people who thought they'd been working for 20 minutes.
Dr. SACKETT: They're thinking, geez, those 20 minutes really breezed by.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then Sackett and his colleagues asked people how much they enjoyed this mundane task, and guess what.
Dr. SACKETT: People who thought that they spent 20 minutes on this 10-minute task, for whom those 20 minutes, in their mind, flew by, rated the task as much more enjoyable, as more fun, and just overall more positively than did participants who felt as though time dragged by.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The team did some additional experiments to make sure this effect was real. To see if fun things could be made even more fun, the researchers had people pick their favorite song. As they listened, a little clock on the music player counted the seconds. But this timer was secretly rigged � either sped up or slowed down.
Dr. SACKETT: When we instigated this sense that time flew by while they were listening to the song, they rated it even more positively than they otherwise would have.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The sense of time flying by also seemed to make annoying things less annoying. For example, the researchers misled people about how long they'd be listening to some unpleasant sounds.
Dr. SACKETT: When time dragged by there people hated it and rated it really negatively. But in the time-flies condition, they just sort of slightly disliked it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The question is, why? Sackett suspected that when people were surprised by the way time flew, they just assumed that they must have been having fun. Here's how he tested this theory. He again did that same experiment with people underlining certain words. But this time he had people wear earplugs. Then it was casually suggested to some of them that earplugs might affect a person's sense of time. It turned out that for those people, there was no time-flies effect.
Dr. SACKETT: It was like they no longer needed to make that attribution that time was flying, I must have had fun. Instead they said to themselves, well, time was flying because I had earplugs in.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: A report on these studies is being published in the journal Psychological Science. Larry Sanna is a psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He says these time-flies studies are clever and novel but it's not clear yet if the findings will have any practical applications.
Mr. LARRY SANNA (Psychology Researcher, University of North Carolina): Does this have implications for marketing? Does it have implications when you're going to the dentist and, you know, wish that time would move faster? Does it have implications for people who just like to live their life at a faster pace?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Here's one implication. We're often sad when a holiday or a vacation is over all too soon. It seemed to fly by so fast. But, of course, this research suggests that is actually part of why we remember having enjoyed it.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.