Waiting at a red light can feel like an eternity. Anticipating the signal warps reality, turning one minute into two. That event on the horizon bends the time around it – like a rock barricading a stream.
The brain’s perception of time is fluid. It is distorted by subjective experience; it flies by when you are having fun and crawls by when you are waiting for something – like the end of a pandemic. Persistent anxiety can make it drag even more. But the brain can be tricked into thinking time is moving faster.
Many economists and psychologists study how to shorten perceived wait time. Beyond self-control, there are mental shortcuts to enhance patience. Versions of the marshmallow experiment, in which participants try to defer an immediate reward for the gratification of a larger future reward, are often used to assess the ability to wait – one marshmallow now or two later. Children who underestimate how much time has passed are better able to wait for their second marshmallow.
The pandemic is a longer waiting game with much higher stakes, but some of the same rules may apply. Thus, the end of the pandemic may come quicker if the brain can be taught to perceive time as moving faster.
For the past year, governments have been dealing out time in increments: a month-long stay-at-home order, four weeks of lockdown, an early curfew for 30 days … These chunks of waiting can feel long – but the last one may seem like the longest. That’s because of how it is phrased.
Rafay Siddiqui, associate professor of marketing at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, has found that expressing time in larger units boosts patience. The brain generally focuses more on numbers than units, meaning that one month seems shorter than 30 days even though they are technically the same. Emotion-based judgments are particularly susceptible to this numeracy bias.
Siddiqui offered his participants $100 sooner or $120 later. Participants were more willing to postpone if the longer wait time was described as eight weeks rather than 56 days. The smaller number makes the future feel closer and the wait time shorter, Siddiqui says, so the participants are more patient.
During the pandemic, “the future is uncertain and that automatically makes us feel more connected to the present,” Siddiqui says. But thinking in terms of bigger units – months instead of weeks, weeks instead of days – could make time feel like it is passing faster and bring the future back into focus, he says.
During the marshmallow test, children aren’t allowed to have any distractions – no television or friends or alternative treats. Many try to occupy themselves in other ways to stop themselves from reaching for the marshmallow.
“They take off their shoes and play with their toes as if they were piano keys. They’re inventing little songs or exploring their nasal cavities,” said psychologist Walter Mischel, inventor of the marshmallow test.
Distractions increase patience and make waiting easier. Adding more COVID-safe events helps time flow by faster for emotional decision-makers because these distractions reduce awareness of time passing. The metaphorical internal clock stops counting pulses, making time feel shorter.
“If you pay attention to time, it will seem longer,” says Simon Grondin, professor of psychology at Laval University. Children who are told to think of a fun memory before they are left alone with the marshmallow can hold out 10 times longer than others. So stay busy and have fun, Grondin recommends.
The hardest part about waiting often isn’t the wait itself; it is the uncertainty. Known, explained wait times are much easier to endure than unknown and unexplained ones. But often we don’t have control over the length or circumstances of our wait.
In those instances, “the trick is to accept as soon as possible that it might take more time than what you wish it would be,” says Grondin – and maybe reimagine the value of that time.
Ashwani Monga, associate professor of marketing at the Darla Moore School of Business, conducted a study to manipulate perception of time. He instructed participants to imagine they were given Swiss cheese, and they could either wait knowing that the flavour will improve with time or eat it immediately.
“Think about this very moment,” Monga tells them, “and in addition, the moment when you eat the cheese. Time is in the middle, making the cheese better. It is improving the taste of the cheese so that you can enjoy it better.”
Monga framed time as a benevolent force, working to bring them a larger reward, which led to increased patience. Simply thinking of time as a force of good made the wait more bearable.
The good news is the act of waiting tends to make it easier to wait. Over a year into the waiting game, pandemic habits and routines should make the time pass quicker. And in the moments where it seems to be crawling past, these reframing tricks can push it along.