Crowding makes time seem to pass more slowly

Testing time perception in an unusually lifelike setting — a virtual reality ride on a New York City subway train — an interdisciplinary Cornell research team found that crowding makes time seem to pass more slowly.

As a result, rush-hour commutes on public transit may feel significantly longer than other rides that objectively take the same amount of time.

The research adds to 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 transit, particularly after the pandemic.

“It’s a new way of thinking about social crowding, showing that it changes how we perceive time,” said Saeedeh Sadeghi, M.S. ’19, a doctoral student in the field of psychology. “Crowding creates stressful feelings, and that makes a trip feel longer.”

Sadeghi is the lead author of “Affective Experience in a Virtual Crowd Regulates Perceived Travel Time,” published Nov. 3 in the journal Virtual Reality. Co-authors are Ricardo Daziano, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering; So-Yeon Yoon, associate professor in the Department of Human Centered Design in the College of Human Ecology (CHE); and Adam K. Anderson, professor in the Department of Psychology and in CHE.

Prior research has identified subjective emotions, heart rate and a situation’s complexity, including the number of items requiring attention, among factors that can influence one’s experience of time. Experiments typically have been conducted in lab settings using simple tasks and stimuli, such as shapes or images on a computer screen, for short durations.

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