Crowding makes time seem to pass more slowly — ScienceDaily

Testing the perception of time in an unusually lifelike environment — a virtual reality ride on a New York City subway — an interdisciplinary Cornell research team found that crowds seem to slow down time.

As a result, rush-hour journeys on public transport can feel significantly longer than other journeys that objectively take the same amount of time.

The research adds to evidence that social context and subjective feelings can distort our sense of time and have practical implications for people’s willingness to use public transport, particularly in the post-pandemic.

“It’s a new way of thinking about social crowding and shows that it changes our perception of time,” said Saeedeh Sadeghi, MS ’19, a graduate student in psychology. “Overcrowding creates stressful feelings, and it 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 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 at the Department of Psychology and CHE.

Previous research has identified subjective emotions, heart rate, and the complexity of a situation, including the number of points requiring attention, as factors that can affect one’s sense of time. Experiments were usually performed in laboratory settings using simple tasks and stimuli such as shapes or images on a computer screen for short periods of time.

In a novel application of VR, the Cornell team tested time perception in an immersive environment that was far more realistic but allowed systematic crowd control. More than 40 study participants took five simulated subway rides with a randomly assigned duration of 60, 70, or 80 seconds, each with varying levels of congestion.

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After donning heart rate monitors and VR goggles to “step into” the New York City subway scene Yoon created, attendees heard an announcement, “Please stay away from the closing doors,” followed by the ding-dong a doorbell closed and the sound of a speeding subway train. The journey ended with the train stopping and another chime of the bell.

Each level of crowding added one person per square meter, resulting in a crowd of 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.

The result: Crowded trips took about 10% longer, on average, than the least crowded trips. Time distortion is related to the level of pleasure or displeasure experienced, with unpleasant trips feeling 20% ​​longer than pleasant ones, which the authors attribute to the activation of emotional defense systems when people feel their personal space is being violated.

“This study shows how our everyday experience of, and subjective feelings about, people dramatically distorts our sense of time,” Anderson said. “Time is more than what the clock says; it’s how we feel or value it as a resource.”

Based on U.S. transit commuters averaging just over 60 minutes per day, the results imply that a year of crowded commuting would add more than 24 hours, or three full workdays, of “felt” time to reach the goals.

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The impact of crowding on perceived travel time is unlikely to increase until after coronavirus-related crowd-avoidance warnings, according to the study. This could help encourage more people to choose alternatives to public transport, potentially increasing the carbon footprint of commuting.

In addition to their fundamental scientific insights into how time is perceived, the scientists said their research could help transportation engineers improve passenger models – the focus of a related research paper – and vehicle designs. Mitigating the crowd’s uncomfortable experience, they said, would make the rides seem 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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Materials provided by Cornell University. Originally written by James Dean, courtesy of the Cornell Chronicle. Note: Content can be edited for style and length.