Testing the perception of time in an unusually realistic setting – a virtual reality ride on a New York City subway train – an interdisciplinary research team from Cornell found that clutter makes time slower.
As a result, rush hour public transit trips may seem much longer than other trips that objectively take the same amount of time.
The research adds to the evidence that social context and subjective feelings distort our sense of the passage of time and may have practical implications for people’s willingness to use public transport, particularly post-pandemic.
“It’s a new way of thinking about social clutter, showing that it’s changing the way we perceive time,” said Saeedeh Sadeghi, MS ’19, a PhD student in the field of psychology. “Overcrowding creates stressful feelings, and it makes a trip longer.”
Sadeghi is the lead author of “Affective Experience in a Virtual Crows Regulates Perceived Travel Time,” published Nov. 3 in Virtual Reality journal. The co-authors are Ricardo Daziano, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the College of Engineering; So-Yeon Yoon, associate professor in the Department of Human-Centered Design at the College of Human Ecology (CHE); and Adam K. Anderson, professor in the Department of Psychology and at CHE.
Previous research has identified subjective emotions, heart rate, and the complexity of a situation, including the number of items requiring attention, among factors that can influence the experience of time. Experiments have typically been conducted in the laboratory using simple tasks and stimuli, such as shapes or images on a computer screen, for short durations.
In a new VR application, the Cornell team tested the perception of time in an immersive environment that was much more realistic, but allowed for systematic clutter control. More than 40 study participants took five simulated subway rides of random duration 60, 70, or 80 seconds, each with varying crowd levels.
After donning heart rate monitors and virtual reality goggles to “board” the New York City subway scene developed by Yoon, attendees heard an announcement to “stand clear of closing doors, please,” followed by the ding-dong of a bell as the doors closed and the sound of a speeding subway. The trip ended with the train stopping and another ringing bell.
Each crowd level added one person per square meter, resulting in crowds ranging from 35 to 175 passengers. Study participants could look around the carriage at animated avatars of seated and standing passengers changing positions, looking at phones, or reading books and magazines.
After each trip, study participants answered questions about how pleasant or unpleasant the experience was on a scale of 1 to 7, and were asked to do their best to accurately estimate the duration of the trip. .
As a result, crowded journeys took on average about 10% longer than less busy journeys. Distortion of time linked to the degree of pleasure or displeasure felt, with unpleasant journeys being felt 20% longer than pleasant journeys, which the authors attribute to the activation of emotional defense systems when people feel that their personal space is violated.
“This study highlights how our daily experience of people and our subjective emotions about them dramatically distort our sense of time,” Anderson said. “Time is more than the clock says; it is what we feel or value as a resource.
Based on transit commutes in the United States averaging just over 60 minutes per day, the results imply that a year of crowded commutes would add more than 24 hours, or three full workdays, of time.” felt” to reach the destinations.
The influence of overcrowding on perceived travel time will likely only grow stronger after coronavirus-related warnings to avoid crowds, the research suggests. This could contribute to more people choosing alternatives to public transport, which could increase the carbon footprint of travel.
In addition to their fundamental scientific discoveries about the nature of time perception, the researchers said their research could help transportation engineers improve models of ridership – the subject of a related research paper – and the vehicle design. Alleviating the unpleasant experience of overcrowding, they said, would make commutes shorter.
The research was supported by the Cornell Center for Social Sciences; the Center for Transportation, Environment and Community Health; and the National Science Foundation.
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