Always Late? You Must Just Be Getting Older

I've never been late in my life (if you don't count my birth, when I waited a week).

But a new study says that I'll be late soon.  It comes with age.

Supposedly that's because young and old use different strategies to estimate the passage of time, according to

I have a friend who was perennially late.  We'd make plans for lunch and I -- always early -- would be sitting there steaming as the minutes ticked by. I knew she was always trying to always get just one more thing done but I took it as a personal insult, that I wasn't important enough for her to be on time.

Ironically, we're still friends.  And now she's early.

Newswise reports that people rely heavily on time estimates of past experiences to plan for future tasks and that outside influences, such as background music, can skew our perception of time, causing even the best-laid plans to go awry.

“Our results suggest time estimates of tasks that we need to incorporate into our later plans, like a drive to an appointment, are often based on our memory of how long it took us to perform that same drive previously,” says Emily Waldum, principal author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher in psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences.

“Even if you think you estimated the duration of events accurately, external factors unrelated to that event can bias time estimates,” she adds. “Something as simple as the number of songs you heard play on your phone during a run can influence whether you over- or under-estimate the duration of the run.”

In a study that involved taking a trivia quiz, putting a puzzle together and, in some cases, listening to either two or four songs, seniors managed to complete future tasks on time at about the same rate as college undergraduates, although each age group used surprisingly different strategies to estimate how much time they would need to do the puzzle, then repeat a trivia quiz they'd taken before, on deadline.

In the experiment, older adults relied instead on an internal clock to estimate how long it took them to complete the first quiz.  Consistent with other research on internal clocks and time perception,  seniors in this experiment tended to underestimate time taken on the first quiz. This led them to spend a little too much time on the puzzle and to finish the second quiz a bit beyond deadline.

“When younger adults heard two long songs during the first quiz, they performed a lot like older adults, underestimating the quiz duration and winding up a bit late,” Waldum notes. “When they heard four short songs, younger adults overestimated how much time they would need to repeat the quiz leading them to finish it too early.”

Thus, older adults performed about the same, regardless of whether they heard songs or not. For young people though, background music played a big role in whether they were too early or too late, Waldum explains.

While the challenges of being on time may remain largely the same throughout a lifetime, this study suggests that the tricks we use to stay on schedule may evolve as we age.


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