Time compression and the causal connection

Photo by Flickr user evoo73. Click for sourceWhen we think two events are causally related we perceive the time between them to be shorter. Although this is news to me, it turns out the ‘time compression’ effect has been well researched.

Several of the studies have found that when we view two events but believe the first causes the second, time between them seems have gone quicker than when we perceive exactly the same scenario but think the two events are not connected.

This is a summary of the effect from a recent study that investigated whether your beliefs about how one thing is causing another affected the amount of time compression:

How much time might have elapsed between the launch of an economic program and the emergence of an economy from recession, between joining a dating service and finding someone you want to marry, or between giving your child a tough lecture about trying harder in school and seeing an effect on his or her performance? Recent research has shown that people subjectively bind such cause‚Äìeffect events in time and ‚Äúcompress‚Äù the time elapsed between them. Hence, for instance, if a parent believes that the tough lecture was the reason for an improvement in the child’s performance, the parent would estimate the interval [between the two] to be shorter. Several behavioral studies have established that people judge the time elapsed between pairs of historical events to be shorter when they perceive the events to be causally linked than when people do not perceive them to be so (Faro, Leclerc, & Hastie, 2005).

Similar effects occur on a shorter time scale. For example, in another study, when participants intentionally made a movement that appeared to cause a sound, they thought the events were closer together than when the two events occurred with no apparent causal connection

The new study helped explain the effect and showed that our beliefs about how we think one thing caused another are crucial to our experience of time.

It found that if people believe that cause and effect happened by a mechanical or physical process that was time limited the ‘time compression’ effect increased, whereas if it was an accumulative or ‘building up to a tipping point’ process, time didn’t seem so short.

Link to PubMed entry for time compression study.

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