Have you ever felt like an experience was better because it felt like “time flew by”? Research by Aaron Sackett, assistant professor of marketing, looks to prove this area of consumer behavior. Here is what we learned from Professor Sackett about this topic:

Professor Aaron Sackett

Q. How can the sun make movies better?

A. This research examines how people’s feelings of time’s progress can influence their recollections of events they’ve just experienced. Specifically, it’s about how moments of surprise regarding how much (or little) time has passed can make people believe that they were enjoying themselves perhaps just a bit more (or less) than they actually were. If you’ve ever had a moment when you looked at your watch, or out the window at the setting sun, and thought, “where did the time go?!”, you know what I mean. You may have also had the opposite happen to you: You look at your watch and can’t believe how slow time is going (students report dull lectures as a common instance, although this surely never occurs in my own classes!). A short while back, I published a series of studies looking at how these moments of surprise influence people’s evaluations of the events that immediately preceded them. It turns out that when people experience these “time warp” moments, they reliably draw false conclusions about the events that led to them: If they feel that time “flew by,” they believe that they enjoyed themselves more (also, if they feel that time “dragged on,” they believe that they enjoyed themselves less). In other words, the exact same experience can “feel” more enjoyable if it’s followed by a moment that leads us to think, “wow, time must’ve really flown!” than if it’s not followed by such a moment of surprise.

The goal of these early studies was simply to understand how the mind reacts to surprises regarding time perception. However, by themselves, the studies had limited application. To create these “time warp” moments, we had to use rigged clocks in artificial settings. Great for understanding the mind, but not great for real-world implications. So, a year ago, an eager undergraduate marketing student (Samantha Drager ’13) and I set out to demonstrate at least one way in which these moments can change people’s perceptions in consumer contexts (later, Andrew Bennington ’12 came on board, as well). We agreed that one common consumer experience that would be a strong candidate is watching a movie. After a couple hours in a dark theater, exiting into outdoor conditions can lead to exactly the kind of “time-warp” feelings that I observed people experiencing in my prior research. So we set up a behavioral experiment in which research participants watched a feature-length Hollywood movie in our private “theater” (the darkened, windowless media room in the OCB’s Behavioral Research Center). We set up the show times so that the movie either (a) started and ended before dark (b) started before dark and ended after dark, or (c) started and ended after dark. After the movie ended, our moviegoers completed a short survey after a short stroll to the building next door (Schulze Hall). Compared to those who exited into the movie after dark, those who left the darkened theater and stepped into sunlight (condition “a” above) reported having a strong “time warp” experience. You can almost imagine them standing there, blinking in the bright sun, and feeling like the past 90 minutes had been compressed into just a short moment. More importantly, these feelings of time distortion led this group to rate the movie as more enjoyable, engaging, and fun than did people who had exited the movie into (less-surprising) evening darkness. Compared to controls, this group also said they would be more likely to recommend the movie to friends and would be more excited to go see a sequel if one were made. It seems as though people’s perception of time may have some very interesting, very real implications for consumer judgments and behavior.

Q. Why is this topic of interest to you?

A. In general, I like to study how people’s judgments and behavior can be influenced by things that we wouldn’t expect. In this case, being surprised by the time is a seemingly trivial little experience, and yet my research suggests that it can have a significant impact on our recalled enjoyment.. Much of consumer behavior – of human behavior – is influenced by subtle factors that aren’t obvious from observation or surveys alone. It’s exciting to use the methods of behavioral science to uncover mysteries about how our very complex minds work.

Q. What are you hoping to accomplish with this research?

A. Ultimately, I imagine that this research might suggest ways for companies to help consumers get the most out of their product experiences. It might also suggest ways for employers to improve employee satisfaction – perhaps by making those boring tasks (meetings, anyone?) feel just a little less painful in retrospect. The idea is that it shouldn’t be necessary to overtly manipulate or mislead people to do this. There are plenty of natural, benign ways to increase the likelihood of people getting that “time warp” experience that seems to enhance our recalled enjoyment. My hope is that my current research is just the tip of the iceberg.

Q. How will this research impact your teaching at St. Thomas?

A.  The course material that I teach tends to have two levels – the intuitive or obvious level, and the less-intuitive, non-obvious level. Teaching the intuitive material is easy and straightforward, and students “get it” immediately because it makes sense. It’s the less intuitive stuff that can sometimes be a challenge to teach because it’s inherently subtle and more complex. By definition, it takes a lot more effort for students to understand and apply this material. My research tends to focus on less intuitive features of consumer judgment and behavior, but it usually involves experiences that people can relate to. These aren’t abstract situations or hypothetical models – like going to a movie, they are contexts that are familiar to most students. As a result, describing my research in the classroom can provide vivid, accessible examples of less intuitive concepts.

Q. What was the most surprising finding from this project?

A. If you asked 100 people to describe relationship between enjoyment and time perception, I bet at least 90 of them would say that enjoying yourself causes time to feel like it passed more quickly (which other research has confirmed to be generally true, by the way). Zero would guess that the cause-and-effect story works in the opposite direction, but that’s essentially what this project demonstrates: The feeling that time passed surprisingly quickly can make you believe that you enjoyed yourself more. Contrary to intuition, this seems to be one of those interesting instances in which A can cause B, but B can also cause A.