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Time Flies When Your Partner Is Cute…At Least for a While

Have you ever had a lunch date that just seemed to fly by? Or a coffee date where you were counting the minutes until you could make an excuse and leave? You might guess that conversing with someone attractive can make a difference in whether or not time seems to drag. However, attractiveness may not play the role you expect!

Researchers tested the role of attractiveness in time-perception with a series of experiments.1 In one of the experiments, strangers were asked to converse freely (unscripted) over Skype, an application that allows text, voice, and video chatting over the Internet. For brevity, we’ll focus only on this Skype experiment below.

To prevent participants from catching a glimpse of the person they would converse with, pairs of male and female strangers attended laboratory sessions that were held in different locations. Participants brought photos of themselves, which they believed the other participant would see before the conversation. In reality, during the “photo exchange,” the experimenter provided each participant with a stock photograph of what had previously been judged to be either an attractive or unattractive opposite-sex person. The participants were told they would be getting acquainted with the person in the photograph and proceeded to have a voice-only conversation via Skype.

So, in other words, Naomi shows up to a study session in one area of the building, while Harrison shows up in another. Both provide the researchers with pictures of themselves, but, unbeknownst to Naomi and Harrison, the researchers actually show them preselected stock photos (either attractive or unattractive) and then ask them to voice-chat over Skype—similar to having a telephone call via computer.

After the conversation, participants estimated how long each conversation lasted (all conversations were actually eight minutes long) and recalled the topics they brought up, how much they enjoyed the conversation, how much they wished to make a good impression, and their partner’s presumed attractiveness (based on the stock photo). These ratings represented each participant’s immediate perceptions of the conversation. Two days later, participants responded to the same questions again via e-mail. These later ratings represented participants’ delayed perceptions of the conversation.

It seems both male and female participants enjoyed the conversation more when they believed they were conversing with an attractive member of the opposite sex. This enjoyment then led them to think they spent less time talking. (Maybe time does fly when you’re having fun!)

But here’s where it gets weird. The pattern of results I note above were true only for immediate perceptions of the conversation. Participants’ delayed perceptions indicated that having an attractive partner made conversations seem longer! It seems that for delayed judgments, participants estimated the conversation duration based on the number of topics they recalled introducing, rather than based on how much they enjoyed the discussion (which is what they had done in their immediate judgments). The more topics they believed they had introduced, the longer the conversation seemed to last. And naturally, a person might bring up more topics when hoping to make a good impression on an attractive member of the opposite sex.

In delayed judgments, participants also reported enjoying the conversation less when their partner was attractive. This may be because conversations with attractive partners seemed lengthier (two days later), and believing the conversation was lengthy actually reduced perceived enjoyment. It’s possible that grasping for additional conversation topics seemed like hard work, leading participants to believe later that they struggled to find common ground for conversation. For example, if Harrison thinks Naomi is attractive, he enjoys their conversation more initially and might bring up more topics to impress her. If asked immediately afterward, he’ll think their conversation flew by quickly. But, working through more topics also makes the conversation seem longer a few days later—and sadly, less enjoyable.

There’s one final twist. What if participants believed their conversation partner was not-so-hot? Unattractive partners made conversations seem longer immediately afterward. After a delayed estimate, however, those same conversations seemed shorter! Without the extra spark of good looks—if a person doesn’t care about impressing a conversation partner, or learning every detail about that person—the chat may be forgettable and therefore, seem shorter.

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1Dong, P. & Wyer, R. S., Jr. (2014). How time flies: The effects of conversation characteristics and partner attractiveness on duration judgments in a social interaction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 50(1), 1-14.  doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2013.08.005

Dr. Helen Lee Lin - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Helen's past research has focused on potential problems in relationships, such as keeping secrets from a significant other. She is also interested in communication as well as the use and consumption of media in relationships, and is planning to work in applied contexts for her future projects. 

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