The future is nonlinear

There have been some excellent articles recently on the psychology of time but one of the most fascinating is from Developing Intelligence who look at a new study that suggests our concept of time becomes nonlinear as we look into the future – in other words, not all futures are equal.

The research, led by psychologist Gal Zauberman, riffs on an effect called ‘hyperbolic discounting‘, where immediate rewards seem more valuable than rewards in the future.

Studies have offered people, for example, ¬£5 now, or more money in the future. Despite the fact that in economic terms they’re better off waiting even for a small amount more, people tend to want considerably more money in the future to make the wait ‘worth it’.

As the DevIntell article notes, this has largely been explained by impulsivity in the past, but a new study considers a radical alternative.

What if the effect is not because we’re impulsive, but because our concept of time is non-linear? In other words, we are reasoning rationally but not on the basis of how much additional time there actually is, but how much longer the wait seems.

These are quite different concepts – for example, we know logically that waiting four weeks is exactly four times as long as waiting a week, but it might not feel exactly four times as bad.

The study asked participants how much extra they’d have to be paid to receive a $75 gift voucher, either in 3 months, 1 year or 3 years. They also had to mark a line to indicate how long each wait seemed, from ‘Very Short’ at one end to ‘Very Long’ at the other.

When compared against the actual time, participants seemed to show hyperbolic discounting, but when compared against the subjective judgement the discounting effect disappeared.

The study goes on to test the effect in different ways, but also added another intriguing angle – when participants were asked to estimate the duration of how long various activities would take, essentially better calibrating their subjective time with actual time, the discounting effect was reduced.

I also really recommend another recent DevIntell post on time perception, discussing how cognitive science theories are attempting to explain how we can perceive something that doesn’t have any ‘sensation’ attached to it.

Any if you’re still hungry for more time, science writer Carl Zimmer has an article in Discover Magazine about how the brain keeps track of time.

Link to DevIntell on distortions in future time perception.
pdf of full-text of study.
Link to DevIntell on time perception and time ‘sensation’.
Link to Carl Zimmer’s article on neuroscience of time.

2 thoughts on “The future is nonlinear”

  1. The study is seriously flawed. Trust is the first thing that comes to mind, do they trust the will really get more money in the future VS subjective time. Visual and touch of the currency. I noticed a change in myself watching TV game shows. When going for a 1 million dollar prize, a 10 thousand dollars that is certain seems small until you see the 10 thousand in a pile infront of you.
    and yes time length is dependant on how much fun we are having.

    Mind Matters – July 15, 2008
    To Trust or Not to Trust: Ask Oxytocin
    When someone betrays us, how does the brain deal with it? A hormone associated with social attachment gives us clues.
    By Mauricio Delgado
    The development of trust is an essential social tool, allowing people to form productive and meaningful relationships, both at a professional and personal level. Bonds of trust are also extremely fragile, however and a single act of betrayal—such as a marital affair—can instantly erase years of trustworthy behavior. The consequences of such breaches in confidence can be disastrous, and not only for a relationship. People who have been betrayed in the past will sometimes start avoiding future social interactions, which is a potential precursor to social phobia. In light of these connections, recent research has attempted to elucidate the neural mechanisms underlying trust behavior. This is the goal of an exciting new study by neuroscientist Thomas Baumgartner and colleagues at the University of Zurich in Germany that combines different disciplines (economics and neuroscience) and methodologies (neuroimaging and neuropharmacology) to investigate how the brain adapts to breaches of trust.
    The Chemistry of Trust
    To study social interactions, economists, and more recently neuroscientists, take advantage of a simple game played between two people called the “trust game.” (For more on greed and altruism, see this.) In a typical trust game, an investor (Player 1) is faced with a decision to keep a sum of money (say, $10) or share it with a trustee (Player 2). If shared,

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