How emotions influence our internal clock

November 15, 2017, University of Freiburg
Credit: Joana Post/Deutsches Uhrenmuseum Furtwangen

Human beings have an internal clock that enables the subconscious perception and estimation of time periods. A research team under Dr. Roland Thomaschke of the University of Freiburg's Department of Psychology has showed in experiments that this mental time-processing system is able to adapt quickly and flexibly to predictive time patterns. The study has been published in the specialist journal Emotion.

The psychologists examined time periods between one and three seconds. Their subjects were given the task of sorting nouns appearing one after another on a computer screen according to gender (German nouns are grammatically masculine, feminine, or neuter). During the transition to the next word, subjects were shown a small cross. What the test subjects were not told that they were looking at concepts with positive or negative emotional weight, such as love and friendship, or torture and death. With most of the "positive" nouns, the cross appeared for half a second; with most of the negative nouns, it appeared for two seconds.

"The pattern influenced the test subjects, although they were not aware of it," says Thomaschke. "If the combination was unusual, like a long interval before a positive concept, they had considerable difficulty sorting according to gender." But this irritation was not manifested when no emotions were involved. With other , the psychologists used concrete and abstract concepts instead of positive and negative ones, and the effect was not observed in this case.

This result contributes to understanding human perception. In conversation, it can be observed that positive, agreeing answers are given faster than negative, rejecting ones. Participants in online conferences in which a delay is imposed by the technology are regarded by the other participants as being negative; the experience of everyday conversation is subconsciously carried over into the conference situation. The results also suggest that it may be possible to get people's attention. For example, if a website always shows advertising after the same period of , users will be able to predict and better ignore it subconsciously. For advertisers, it would therefore make sense to fade in advertising at irregular intervals.

Explore further: Appetizing imagery puts visual perception on fast forward

More information: Thomaschke, R./Bogon, J./Dreisbach, G. (2017): Timing Affect: Dimension-Specific Time-Based Expectancy for Affect, Emotion (2017).

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