I have found an interesting video on YouTube that talks about perception of time. It is an experiment by physicist Dr. Michio Kaku. He times the speed at which people count to 60 seconds. He found that younger people counted to a minute too quickly, while older people counted too slowly.

Overview

“Time is the most undefinable yet paradoxical of things; the past is gone, the future is not come, and the present becomes the past even while we attempt to define it, and, like the flash of lightning, at once exists and expires.”- Charles Caleb Colton

The idea of time is a very broad and important concept that impacts every culture through out the world. What is time? Dictionary.com has twenty-six definitions for the noun “time.” The most common definition is “a nonspatial continuum in which events occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future” (TheFreeDictionary.com).

There are many questions that researchers attempt to answer in regards to the perception of time across cultures. They look at how our perception of time effects our behavior and actions. What happens to behavior when time is viewed as open ended rather than limited and vice versa? How does our perception of time influence our personal relationships? (Cartensen et al., 1999) Researchers look at how much each culture emphasize the three stages of time (past, present, and future), and how that influences behavior and beliefs (Block and Buggie, 1996) . They compare many different groups – perception of time in the young versus the elderly, in collectivist cultures versus individualist, in poor countries versus rich, in cities versus rural areas.

There is a saying that goes, “time is money.” Time is considered a commodity or resource in some cultures and can be very valuable (Stix, 2006). Researchers look at the value of time as a commodity for sale, this idea varies between cultures. Our perception of time influences how hard we work and how we arrange our lives. Work can influence how much we value personal or “free” time. The pace with which we carry on our lives varies based on our perception of time.

Clearly the idea of time impacts our lives and our cultures greatly. The broad concept of time, its many interpretations, the beliefs about it, and how it impacts our behavior contributes to a wide variety of avenues for researchers to pursue.

Similarities between Cultures

The two cultures I will be comparing in their perceptions of time are the United States and China. These two countries have vastly different cultures but they do share a few similarities when it comes to their perceptions of time.

Fung et al. (2001) found that older Chinese people showed a preference to fewer, more emotionally close partnerships and relationships as they aged than their younger counter-parts. This is because the older population viewed time as more limited than the younger participants, who viewed time as more open ended. This study was built off the Carstensen et al. (1999) study showing the same results among the American population. From these studies, it has been showed that the tendency to gravitate towards closer more personal relationships when time is viewed as limited is universal cross-culturally. This is because when the future is expansive, novel experiences with others are at a premium. Contact with a wide range of people helps individuals to prepare for an unknown future and the myriad experiences and challenges that await them. When time is limited, familiar social partners are valued because they are best able to influence emotional states and are realized immediately during the social exchange (Carstensen et al. 1999).

The United States and China are both thought to behave according to “clock time” rather than “event time.” (Brislin and Kim, 2003) If people in a culture behave according to clock time, this means that they focus on the times of scheduled appointments, make sure that their watches are running on time, and become irritated if others are careless about scheduled meetings. If people follow the culture of event time, then they organize their time according to various events and do not move on to the next event until the previous one is finished or completed. Clock Time cultures are generally in countries with large industrial economies that focus more on global business. Event time cultures tend to be more developing nations.

The United States and China are two of the most powerful and influential countries in the world. In terms of traditions, culture, and world view, there might not be a more polar opposite comparison one could make between two nations. They sit on opposite sides of the world. The US is the worlds largest and most powerful capitalist country, while China mirrors this in a communist fashion. One could go on and on highlighting the differences between the two nations, because there are many. The ways in which the two countries perceive different aspects of time are no exception.

The Chinese represent a very traditional culture, they focus on the past, remember their history and ancestors, and they have a long-term point of view. For them time is a cyclical. They believe events repeat themselves which is why they place great importance on focusing on the past and honoring traditions (Yau, 1988). In contrast, Americans tend to focus more on right now, or the present (Brislin and Kim, 2003). Time is viewed as linear by Americans. It goes in one direction, always moving toward the future (Zuo, 2001).

The Chinese tend to remember past events better than Americans. They view past information as more important than Americans do. They also perceive past events as being closer in time than Americans did (Ji et al., 2009). A possible reason for this is that in Chinese culture events are looked at in a much more contextual manner. They take a more holistic view than Americans and look at how past events may effect an event in the present (Nisbett et al., 2001).

Many people think of time as a physical thing, numerical, and exact. This cultural comparison of the United States and China shows that there are many different aspects of time and that culture has a lot to do with how you perceive it.

There are many ideas that pop into my head when thinking about where possible future research on this topic. It would be interesting to see how a persons perception of time and their work ethic or level of productivity are related. Are they more productive when they view time as moving slowly, or when they view it as moving more quickly? I would also like to see more research on the physical attributes a person has in relation to their perceptions about time. There has been research done on a persons age and perception but what about their gender?

How does being in an environment other than our normal environment effect our perceptions of time. For example: how would a persons perception be different when living under ground, under water, or in space for an extended period of time. Rather than looking at specific nations I think we should look at specific geographic locations for comparisons. How is time perceived differently on the poles compared to the equator? How is time perceived differently on the tops of mountains compared to its base? Because prison sentences are oriented towards a specific amount of time spent in a jail cell, I think it would be interesting to see how prisoners perceive time. Are there ways that work consistently to make people think time is moving at a faster pace than normal? Are there ways to make time consistently seem slower than normal? There are many interesting directions research can go. I’m sure there will be many groups and people who look into several of these questions and I’ll be interested to learn of their conclusions.

One of the most important questions of research is how can we take the information we’ve found and apply it to everyday life? How can it be useful? Most people hope that their research has some practical use. I’m sure there are ways in which knowledge of a cultures perception of time can be applied to their daily lives.

Throughout my investigation of this topic I found that many people applied this research in the context of advertisements and marketing. They looked at how peoples values and ideas with respect to time influenced their behavior as consumers. Maybe the ability to do something quickly will have more appeal to someone who views time as limited. Maybe images of ancestors, the cultures history, or something having to do with traditions will be more appealing to Chinese culture.

Many other aspects focused on the cultures business practices. Does their culture place high importance on being prompt and on time? How do they deal with appointments and events? This is very important to know if you’re doing business with people in another culture.

We can use the information presented to look into how perceptions of time can effect a persons behavior. Are certain work tempos more conducive to productivity? Does your view of time (open-ended or limited) effect how you perform on tasks or what tasks you choose to do? Using this information can be helpful for event and tasks planning to people and organizations. The true value of research is how and if the information can be used, and I think there are many ways to consider in applying cultures perception of time to everyday life.