Scientists prove time flies when you're busy

August 06, 2004

Every mom and dad can tell you that keeping children busy helps stave off cries of boredom--and now there is scientific backing to prove it.

Dr. Anthony Chaston and his research colleague, Dr. Alan Kingstone, have proven, once and for all, that time really does fly when you're having fun. Or, at least, it flies when your attention is engaged.

Working in the University of Alberta Department of Psychology, Chaston and Kingstone devised a test that required subjects to find specific items in various images--a sort of "Where's Waldo" activity. However, before the subjects started the test they were told that once they had completed it they would be asked to estimate how much time had passed during their test.

There were seven levels of difficulty among the tests. In some cases, the items were easy to find because they were different colours from everything else, or the items were set among just one or two others. In the more difficult tests, the items were placed among many similar looking items, or they didn't even exist in the image, at all.

"The harder and harder the search tasks were, the smaller and smaller the estimates became," said Chaston, whose study is published in the latest edition of Brain and Cognition. "The results were super clean--we have created a new and powerful paradigm to get at the link between time and attention."

There are two kinds of time estimations, Chaston added. There's prospective time estimation, which means the estimator knows in advance that he or she will be asked to make an estimate after a task is completed, and then there's retrospective, which means someone has been asked to provide a time estimate after the task has been completed.

"There's generally a big difference between prospective and retrospective time estimations," Chaston said. "In our society, we're pretty good with prospective estimates. Most of us wear watches, and we're pretty good at keeping track of the time because we have to for most of our regular, daily lives."

For this reason, Chaston is pleased that the results of his study demonstrated such a powerful effect of attention on prospective time estimates.

"This really shows that even if you know in advance that you're going to have to estimate the time of a task, the more attention the task requires, the faster time flies."
-end-
Dr. Anthony Chaston can be reached at 780-713-4118 or achaston@shaw.ca.

University of Alberta

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