Perception is reality, sort of: Crowded trains ‘drastically distort our sense of time,’ Cornell study explains

ITHACA, New York — When we’re standing shoulder to shoulder in a packed train car, or anxiously awaiting the “unfasten seatbelt” signal after landing, a matter of minutes can seem like an eternity. Now, exciting new research from Cornell University has reached similar conclusions through virtual reality rides on a New York City subway. The scientists found that crowding causes perceptions of time passes slower.

So the next time you feel like you’ve been on the packed train home for what seems like forever, just know that everyone else probably feels the same way. That being said, on a purely objective level, of course, that train journey will take the exact amount of time it always does, regardless of the number of passengers.

These findings add to the evidence suggesting that social context and subjective feelings distort our sense of the passage of time. This study may even have practical implications for people’s willingness to use public transport, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a new way of thinking about social crowding, showing that it changes the way we perceive time,” says study lead author Saeedeh Sadeghi, MS ’19, a doctoral student in the field of psychology, in a Press release. “Crowds create stressful feelings and that makes a trip feel longer.”

Previous research has identified a number of factors capable of influencing a person’s sense of time, such as subjective emotions, heart rate, and the complexity of a situation, including the number of items that require attention. The above experiments were conducted in laboratory settings for short periods using simple tasks and stimuli, such as shapes or images on a computer screen.

For this project, however, virtual reality was used to test time perception within an immersive yet highly controllable environment, far more realistic than anything in a lab. More than 40 subjects took five simulated “subway rides” with a randomly assigned duration of 60, 70, or 80 seconds, along with different levels of crowding.

After donning heart rate monitors and virtual reality goggles to “go up” to the New York City subway scene, subjects heard an announcement to “move away from closing doors please,” followed by the sound of a bell as the doors closed and the subway began to run. began to move. The trip, like a real one, ended with the stop of the train and another bell.

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Each level of overcrowding added one person per square meter, resulting in crowds ranging from 35 to 175 passengers. During their virtual journey, subjects could even look around the train car at animated avatars of seated and standing passengers changing positions, looking at their phones, or flipping through books and magazines. After each trip, participants answered questions about how pleasant or unpleasant the experience was on a scale of one to seven. They were also asked to accurately estimate to the best of their ability how long they were on the train.

Ultimately, crowded trips on average felt like they took 10 percent more than less crowded trips. The time distortion seemed to be related to the degree of pleasure or displeasure experienced. Unpleasant trips felt 20 percent longer than pleasant trips. The study authors theorize that this is due to the activation of emotional defense systems when people feel their personal space is being violated.

“This study highlights how our everyday experience of people and our subjective emotions about them drastically distort our sense of time,” adds study co-author Adam K. Anderson. “Time is more than what the clock says; it is how we feel it or value it as a resource”.

The average US transit commuter spends just over 60 minutes a day commuting, which means that a year of crowded commutes could add more than 24 hours, or three full business days, of “sense” time to displacements.

It is also important to mention the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers explain that the influence of crowding on perceived travel time will likely increase in the wake of coronavirus-related events. warnings to avoid crowds. This may contribute to more people trying alternatives to public transport, potentially increasing the carbon footprint of many commuters.

In addition to their findings on the nature of time perception, the study authors add that this work could also prove useful to transportation engineers looking to improve passenger models and vehicle designs. Finding ways to make public transportation feel less crowded could make trips feel shorter.

The to study is published in Virtual reality.

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