Michael G. Flaherty, Professor, earned his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His teaching and research interests include self and society, deviance, qualitative methods, time and temporal experience, social interaction, and the social construction of reality.
Why Time Flies or Trickles By
Let’s begin by distinguishing between objective time and subjective time. Objective time is measured in standard temporal units, such as minutes, hours, and days of the week. This system of time reckoning has been socially constructed, and we use it to coordinate our actions with each other.
Despite the standardization of objective time, we experience variation in subjective time. We often feel that time is passing slowly or quickly relative to the objective time of clocks and calendars. Thus, variation in the perceived passage of time is recognized against the backdrop of standard temporal units. What causes this distortion in the perceived passage of time?
Our attention to self and situation is elastic. We choose to pay more or less attention to what we are doing. Concentration is intensified in fascinating or problematic circumstances. When this happens, the density of experience per standard temporal unit is much higher than normal. This occurs when there is a lot happening (as with an automobile accident) or when there is very little happening (such as meditation). Either way, these moments are perceived to pass slowly.
Time is perceived to have passed quickly when the experience carried by each standard temporal unit is less than normal. Two conditions bring this about. First, there is habitual activity, such as driving home on a familiar route. You don’t have to pay much attention to what you’re doing, so these minutes carry less experience than is usually the case. Second, there is the erosion of memory. We forget the routine events of each day as time passes. In hindsight, these days carry less experience and seem to have passed quickly.