Well-Being Mental Health

The pandemic has changed people’s perception of time

“Together, our findings show how emotions are a crucial aspect of how time is felt.”
The Associated Press

Story at a glance

  • In the beginning of the pandemic, stay-at-home orders may have left some feeling as though time had stalled.

  • To better understand how individuals’ perceptions of time changed throughout the pandemic, Brazilian researchers conducted an online survey. 

  • They found different phases of the pandemic corresponded with feelings of “time expansion” and “time pressure.” 

As the months living with COVID-19 turned into years, to many it seems like time slowed has down due to the monotonous routine of staying at home and avoiding social contact. 

New research published in Science Advances lends some credence to that common feeling, as investigators found the COVID-19 pandemic has altered how people perceive the passage of time. 

Researchers from Brazil followed 3,855 volunteers who filled out questionnaires after the first 60 days of social distancing and every week thereafter for 15 weeks. Participants also completed a button-pressing task to document their ability to sense duration, a metric that did not change over the course of the pandemic. 

Ninety percent of those included were sheltering at home during the first months of the pandemic. However, only 900 participants who answered questionnaires for at least four weeks were included in the final analysis. 

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In May 2020, results showed 65 percent of participants felt time was passing more slowly — a phenomenon classified as “time expansion” by researchers. Feelings of loneliness were reported throughout this time, as was a lack of positive experiences, authors said.

During this 60-day window, three-quarters of participants also reported fewer feelings of “time pressure,” or the notion that time might be running out. 

“We found that the feeling of time expansion diminished as the weeks went by, but we didn’t detect significant differences with regard to time pressure,” said co-author André Cravo in a statement. Perceptions of higher time pressure were modulated by balancing stress levels and reserving time for personal care, authors noted. 

Comparing the first set of responses to the second, data show a 20-point increase in perception of time expansion and a 30-point decrease in that of time pressure.

“Together, our findings show how emotions are a crucial aspect of how time is felt,” authors wrote. 

Time’s relevance in a particular context and unpredictability both play into perceptions of time expansion and time pressure, Cravo explained, as does recalling events of the past. 

“When you remember what you did during a vacation, time seems to have lasted longer. On the contrary, when you’re standing in line, time goes all too slowly but when you recall the situation some time later, it feels as if it was over quickly,” he said. 

Researchers found age was the only demographic factor that influenced results, as more younger people experienced a slowing down of time in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Because no measurements were carried out prior to the pandemic, results are affected by memory bias and findings may not be reflective of the entire Brazilian population.