Don’t Waste My Time…

We all know that time flies when you’re having fun. In a previous blog entry, I pointed out that when you are involved in something engaging the time seems to rocket by, even though that same event may feel long when you look back on it. The flip side, of course, is that boring events seem to drag on. A one-hour history lecture can seem longer than the entire era being described.

An interesting paper in the October 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Edward O’Brien, Phyllis Anastasio and Brad Bushman explores the role of your sense of entitlement on the perception of the passage of time.

The basic idea is straightforward.  At any given time, everyone feels some sense of entitlement. Standing in the check-out line at a big box retailer, you might feel particularly entitled to better service. So, a 10-minute wait for a slow cashier may feel like an hour. On the other hand, if you were sitting in a waiting room at the White House before having a chance to meet the President, you might consider yourself lucky to be there. In that case, a 10-minute wait might not feel so long.

In one study, the authors just looked at the correlation between people’s general sense of entitlement and their perception of time. There is a difference between people’s feelings of entitlement in general. Some people generally feel that they deserve to get things from the world than other people.

The authors gave people a number of questionnaires including one that measured the sense of entitlement. Then they had people do either a boring task (copying a matrix of letters) or a less boring task (using that same matrix of letters to find people’s names). People did this task for exactly 10 minutes, and then they were asked how long the task took. (To make the time judgment harder, there were no clocks in the room, and people had been asked to remove their watches before starting the study.)

When people did the relatively fun task, there was no relationship between the amount of time people felt they spent doing the task and their general sense of entitlement. In contrast, when people did the boring task, the more people generally felt entitled, the longer they felt they spent on the task.

Two other studies actually manipulated people’s sense of entitlement. For example, in one study, college students were given a long (and rather boring) questionnaire in which they answered mundane questions about themselves (like how often do you eat fast food?). To influence the sense of entitlement, one group was told that they were answering the questions, because the university wanted to know more about each individual student. A second group was told that the university wanted to know more about the student body in general. After doing the questionnaire, participants judged how long it took to complete and also rated how much they thought the survey was a waste of their time.

Now, you might think that being asked questions about yourself would be more interesting than answering questions about students in general. So, it could easily be the case that the survey would seem shorter when you are more engaged in the task. In fact, people felt the survey took more time when they were told it was about them in particular than when it was about students in general. So, the sense of entitlement increased people’s judgments of the time the survey took to complete.  Other analyses of the data show that this difference reflected that people who thought the survey was about them in particular felt the task was a bigger waste of their time than those who thought it was about students in general.

What does all this mean?

Time is one of our most precious resources. The greater your sense of entitlement, the more that you want to avoid wasting resources. As a result, the more entitled you feel, the more pain you experience when your time is wasted. Even though nobody enjoys frustration, this mechanism is a good one to have. If we did not experience frustration when our time was being wasted, we might persist doing things that do not deserve our effort.

Art Markman is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin.  His next book, Smart Thinking (Perigee Books) comes out in January, 2012.