American Journal of Psychology
Fall 2012, Vol. 125, No. 3 pp. 267–274 • ©2012 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
125th Anniversary Articles
The Psychology of Time:
A View Backward and Forward
P. A. HANCOCK
University of Central Florida
RICHARD A. BLOCK
Montana State University
We selectively review the progress of research on the psychology of time during the past 125
years, starting with the publication of the ﬁrst English-language psychological journal,
American Journal of Psychology
. A number of important articles on the psychology of time ap-
peared in this journal, including the widely cited early article by Nichols (1891). The psychology
of time is a seminal topic of psychological science, and although it entered a phase of decline
and even moribund neglect, the past several decades have seen a prominent renaissance of
interest. This renewed vigor represents the rebirth of the recognition of the centrality of the psy-
chology of time in human cognition and behavior. Our selective overview highlights a number
of strands of progress and how they have helped lead to the present, in which the cognitive
neuroscience of time and timing in the brain is one of the most fervent and fertile modern areas
of brain research. We also discuss some remaining challenges and potential lines of progress.
The psychology of time has had a unique history
in psychological research. When the formal disci-
pline of psychology emerged from its philosophical
antecedents in the late 1800s, the study of time and
its relationship to mental phenomena was central to
the nascent enterprise (Nichols, 1891). James (1890)
featured this centrality in the inherent structure of his
classic work, The Principles of Psychology. In it, time
past was a function of attention and memory, topics
that have become perhaps the most explored and
investigated of all psychological phenomena to date.
The previous chapter in James’s book, and thus cen-
tral to both his perspective and theoretical discussion,
was time present. It was in that chapter of the text that
he featured what was then known about the percep-
tion of time. Clearly, James saw this issue as perhaps
the central component of human psychological expe-
rience, and rightfully so. How people understand the
nature of time in passing, and its relationship to time
in prospect and to time in memory, is at the heart of
the human experience. Thus, in James’s view, time
perception stood at a pinnacle.
It was only following this centrality that James
went on to discuss future time, or time in prospect,
AJP 125_3 text.indd 267 7/17/12 4:49 PM
in terms of planning and decision making. Of course,
these latter topics have also burgeoned far beyond the
assembled knowledge on the perception of time. Giv-
en this historical foundation, why did time perception
devolve from its pinnacle of importance to the point at
which Adams (1964) concluded that “time perception
is a venerable, tired topic in psychology that interests
very few active investigators any more because no one
bothered to explore the mechanisms of time percep-
tion and how it might enter into meaningful inter-
action with other mechanisms” (p. 197)? Before we
discuss the reason for this demise, we emphasize that
the enthusiastic pursuit of time perception persisted
during at least the rst decade and a half of the 20th
century, along with studies of the eects of rhythm
(Dunlap, 1911, 1915) and provocative observations on
the dierences between the sexes (MacDougall, 1904;
Yerkes & Urban, 1906), to name but two lines of study.
But the study of subjective time perception largely
died with the ascendancy of behaviorism, at least as
far as psychology in the United States was concerned.
In looking to excise appeals to unobservable phe-
nomena, Watson (1913) and his later acolytes strove
for acknowledgeable respectability from the putative
harder sciences for which the essence was direct, em-
pirical observation. In consequence, the pursuit of
issues that featured primarily subjective experience
(e.g., anxiety, fatigue, or any reference to the crucial
role of internal states) was minimized in importance.
Here we see the graveyard of the youth of time per-
ception, because time is the quintessential nonob-
servable. Unlike all other forms of sensory psycho-
physics, time refers to an evidently intangible quality.
As Hancock (2011b) argued, this is what makes the
psychology of time perception dicult to compre-
hend above all other dimensions of experience. This
observation is true not simply for the psychology of
time but for the study of time in general (e.g., Parker,
Harris, & Steineck, 2010).
Although the North American study of time per-
ception died in the crematorium of behaviorism, the
European community, and especially French and
German psychologists, kept the pursuit alive (Block
& Zakay, 2001). Following the tradition of Vieror-
dt (1868; see Lejeune & Wearden, 2009), Bergson
(1889/1913), and Guyau (1890), a number of Euro-
pean researchers continued to study the apparently
intractable nuances of time. Among these, François
(1927) was perhaps the rst to point up the important
link between body temperature and the perception
of brief temporal intervals, an eect independently
identied by American physiologist Hoagland (1933).
Research on the physiological inuences on time
perception has continued to the present, where it
features very much in the neuroscience-based attack
on this puzzle (Hancock, 1993; Rao, Mayer, & Har-
rington, 2001; Treisman, 1984). The French tradition
persisted with the important work of Fraisse (1963,
1984), and the contemporary resurgence in time per-
ception research has owed much to this European
tradition (cf. Pöppel, 1988; Rammsayer, 1997a).
The Resurrection of Time
Shortly after Adams (1964) announced the death of
the psychology of time, a number of studies began to
appear to initiate its resurrection. Arguably the most
emblematic of these was Ornstein’s (1969) disserta-
tion. Perhaps inspired by Huxley’s (1954) popular
text, Ornstein, among others, explored the nonlin-
earity of temporal experience, which had become
most evident under the inuence of mind-altering
drugs such as LSD (cf. Fischer, Grin, & Liss, 1962).
This lead was taken up by clinical psychologists in-
terested in the relationship between drug inuences
and more commonly occurring forms of mental ill-
ness (Orme, 1969). Time perception became a useful
instrument for such explorations and reintroduced
the perception of brief intervals of duration back into
the mainstream of clinical eorts. However, it was
also at about this time that the evaluation of interval
perception also began to reemerge into the experi-
To give the impression that no experimental re-
search had been conducted between the 1920s and
the 1960s would be simply false. In fact, a series of
reviewers surveyed the area at fairly regular inter-
vals during the period from the 1930s (Weber, 1933)
through the late 1940s (Gilliland, Hofeld, & Eck-
strand, 1946) and early 1950s (Woodrow, 1951), and
on into the 1960s (Wallace & Rabin, 1960). Much of
this work was directed at a conundrum that has still
to be satisfactorily resolved, namely, how the content
of a specic interval inuences the perception of the
duration of that interval (e.g., Smith, 1969). Block and
Zakay (2001) wrote an extensive review of that early
and later history.
26 8 • hancock & bloc k
AJP 125_3 text.indd 268 7/17/12 4:49 PM
There are some crucial reasons why the psychol-
ogy of time has proved to be such a dicult problem.
The rst is that in assembling the ongoing literature
across the century, we can see that there was no
principled fashion in which the content “lling” the
interval was ordered. The typical investigation used
a series of convenient activities—counting, crossing
o the letter w on a page of text, listening to text,
doing nothing at all, actively trying to estimate the
interval, and so on—in which there was virtually no
theoretical foundation for the chosen activity or ac-
tivities. Surveying numerous introductions to such
works makes paradoxical reading. Many authors
make this point and then go on to select their own
idiographic selection of tasks. Like Adams’s (1964)
earlier observation on the failure to integrate time
perception with other processes, this principled fail-
ure to establish a theoretical taxonomy as to what
connotes a task (which indeed still remains a con-
temporary challenge) inhibited progress. A second
and very much allied question concerned the role of
attention. In the late 1950s and early 1960s attention
itself experienced a renaissance in the early dawn of
the cognitive revolution (Broadbent, 1958). It was all
very well presenting diering tasks, but how could
one control the amount of attention a person paid to
each respective task? This concern itself emphasizes
the issue of individual dierences and the problems
that such interindividual and intraindividual varia-
tion posed, and still poses, to the whole area of time
perception (Doob, 1971; Tien & Burnes, 2002). It
is a topic we will comment on at the conclusion of
our review. We should also note that chronometric
methods of studying reaction time, which we do not
review here, also became an important part of the
nascent cognitive revolution starting in the late 1950s.
Modern behavioral researchers introduced the
scalar expectancy theory (SET) of time perception in
the 1980s, based largely on studies of animals such as
rats and pigeons (for a review, see Church, 2003, and
others). However, SET theorists largely ignored the
role of attention in their formal models. The issue of
attention was raised most pertinently in a revision of
SET that explicitly included attention, the attentional
gate model (AGM; see, for example, Zakay & Block,
The AGM was proposed partly from what has
become to be known as the prospective–retrospec-
tive comparison. This comparison has been explored
most extensively by Block and Zakay (Block, 1974;
Block & Zakay, 1997; Zakay, 1993). In prospective
conditions, a person is aware that he or she will be
asked about the duration of an interval and therefore
is expected to pay explicit attention to coding that
duration. In contrast, in retrospective judgments,
the person has not been forewarned about the need
to estimate the length of any particular duration and
so, presumably, pays less attention to the passage of
time. In this way, one can seek to generate an explicit
contrast of the eects of diering levels of attention,
without the necessity to make the inferences as to
which lling activities demand more or less attention.
In part, this comparison can therefore also circumvent
the persistent and thorny issue of individual dier-
ences (Woodrow, 1933). Indeed, the results of these
comparisons show important and large eects as to
whether a person does or does not know whether he
or she will be asked to judge the accuracy of a duration
for which there are a number of potential explanations
involving the respective inuence of memory and at-
tention (Block & Zakay, 1997; Zakay & Block, 2004).
The Importance of Time
The present article advances the study of and the
importance of time, not merely in psychological re-
search but throughout science and indeed in all of
human experience (Fraser, Haber, & Muller, 1971;
Hancock & Warm, 1989). However, especially for
experimental psychologists, time is critical because
“psychological time can no longer continue to be ig-
nored by psychologists who propose models of non-
temporal behavior, because nontemporal behavior
does not exist” (Block, 1990, p. xviii). Not only is this
statement important for all of psychological research,
it is especially relevant to the present journal and its
celebration of its longevity of more than a century
and a quarter of its existence. As we have seen, time
perception has been featured in its earliest volumes
(e.g., Nichols, 1891), but if we scan the most cited
works ever to appear in the present journal, we nd
a most interesting outcome. From a Web of Science
search, one of the most cited articles in The Ameri-
can Journal of Psychology concerns time estimation
(Hicks, Miller, & Kinsbourne, 1976). Given the fore-
going discussion, we can see both the paradox and
the importance of the cited work. First, the paradox:
ps ychology of time • 2 69
AJP 125_3 text.indd 269 7/17/12 4:49 PM
How is it that the oldest continuously published
journal in all of psychology has one of the highest
citation rates for an article in an area we have already
described as neglected and at times moribund? Our
answer derives from the fact that the work of Hicks et
al. was central to the ongoing theme of time percep-
tion and the content of specic intervals that, to a
degree, persisted throughout the 20th century. Thus,
their work struck a chord at the juncture when time
perception was especially beginning to reemerge
onto the psychological scene. In particular, they
asked how prospective and retrospective judgments
of time varied as a function of the amount of informa-
tion processed (e.g., Smith, 1969). Briey, they found
no systematic eects in the retrospective paradigm,
in which the person was not aware of the necessity
to estimate the duration of the interval. However, in
contrast, they found that in the prospective paradigm,
judged time was an inverse linear function of response
uncertainty. This linked attention to the information
content intrinsic to a particular interval in conditions
where someone expected to be asked to estimate the
duration experienced. Thus, Hicks et al. identied
the crux of an ongoing major issue and reported
results that illuminated both the empirical pattern
of outcomes and the theoretical reasons why such a
pattern may be produced. Although the whole area
of time perception has moved on since the 1970s, this
nding has proved an important and inuential one
and is still a central building block in a number of
theories on time perception.
Time Flows On
In the four decades since Hicks et al. (1976) reported
their ndings, the psychological study of time percep-
tion has progressed on numerous fronts (e.g., Fried-
man, 1990). One sequence of investigations looked
to use the opportunities opened up by meta-analytic
techniques to attack the question of the inuence of
individual characteristics on the perception of brief
intervals of time. Block, Zakay, and Hancock (1998)
examined the eects of aging on time perception and
developmental status on the estimation of the same
range of short durations. In general, there were sys-
tematic eects for age and developmental status, as
there were for the sex of the person making the re-
spective estimates (Block, Hancock, & Zakay, 2000;
Hancock, 2011a). More recently, this technique has
been used to address the inuence the nature of the
content of any duration has on its perceived dura-
tion (Block, Hancock, & Zakay, 2010). Again, large
dierences emerged between the prospective and
retrospective ndings. Importantly, as the cognitive
load of the lling activity (cognitive load) increases,
the subjective-to-objective duration judgment ratio
decreases in the prospective paradigm but increases
in the retrospective paradigm. We interpret this as
emphasizing the inuence of attentional allocation
in the prospective paradigm but memory retrieval
in the retrospective paradigm. Both positions argue
for the importance of information coding rate and
its subsequent transfer to, and recall from, memory.
Thus, time in passing (prospective estimation) and
time in recall (retrospective estimation) are distinct
issues. In addition to these quantitative techniques
for summarizing large bodies of experimental data,
the pure psychological exploration of timing and time
perception has itself shown an important renewal in
the last decade or two (cf. Block & Zakay, 2001; Gron-
What is perhaps most challenging is the genera-
tion of new techniques through which to explore the
sense of time. The traditional and historically most
dominant techniques typically are verbal estimation,
duration production, and duration reproduction
(Bindra & Waksberg, 1956; Clausen, 1950; Guay &
Salmoni, 1988), but each has some drawbacks (Sieg-
man, 1962). For example, reproduction necessarily
emphasizes memory for explorations of time in pass-
ing, but the reproduction method has some limited
exploratory capacities. In contrast, verbal estimation
and production require the person to reference stan-
dard temporal units (e.g., seconds, minutes), and thus
the pure perception of duration is contaminated by
the linguistic and semantic tags associated with tra-
ditional units of measured time (Zakay, 1990). Fur-
thermore, we have often come to see the duration
measured by the clock as the “correct” time, and so
percepts that deviate from this declared target are
necessarily seen as errors of estimation. Although this
provides methodological convenience and a veneer of
scientic respectability, such a perspective can mask
certain important qualitative dimensions of dier-
ing human temporal experience (Hancock, 2011a). A
challenge in sustaining the renewed interest in time
perception will be the development of innovative
27 0 • h an co ck & bl oc k
AJP 125_3 text.indd 270 7/17/12 4:49 PM
exploratory techniques, especially those that can be
used in association with the time scales involved in
various brain imaging techniques. Indeed, it is the
cognitive neuroscience of temporal perception to
which we now proceed.
Time and the Brain
In many ways, neuroscientists have taken much more
notice of Block’s (1990) imperative about the central-
ity of time than have contemporary psychologists,
although this too is changing. With advances in brain
imaging techniques, it became progressively more
evident that spatial and temporal resolution of the
respective advances traded o such, so improved
spatial resolution was often accompanied by lower
temporal resolution and vice versa. Highly detailed
but static representations of brain configuration
could lead to important insights, but these were
inevitably frustrated by the absence of sucient in-
formation as to the dynamic changes that were oc-
curring on diering time scales. Thus, much interest
in the temporal dimension was engendered purely
by way of the functional limits of the methodologi-
cal techniques through which important discover-
ies were being made. But the focus was not on the
techniques alone. Many neuroscientists began to real-
ize that understanding how the brain deals with the
fundamental dimension of time is important. They
joined with many researchers who had been pioneer-
ing such eorts for a number of years, if not decades
(Buhusi & Meck, 2005). It is now evident that the
brain necessarily deals with time on a number of dif-
fering scales—and in a number of dierent cortical
areas, or modules—in relation to a number of dier-
ing functions (e.g., absolute timing, relative timing,
rhythmic frequencies). Recently, we have argued that
one might consider these diering requirements as
a virtual battle for time in the brain (Hancock, 2010).
These respective advances in understanding the neu-
roanatomy (Coull, Vidal, Nazarian, & Macar, 2004),
neurophysiology, and neuropsychology of temporal
processing represent a signicant and growing litera-
ture (Wittmann & van Wassenhove, 2009).
The Future of Time
To summarize, the most important question to pose
is, What is the future of time? If one believes in the
application of Kondratiev’s (1925/1984) “long wave
cycles” to the pursuit of scientic knowledge, then the
future of time perception research appears to be ex-
ceptionally bright. Having been sadly displaced from
its initial centrality in the psychological sciences and,
for some decades, consigned to the back drawers of
the discipline, time perception has now come roaring
back. The number of people in psychology and the
greater neurosciences working on time perception
issues has perhaps never been greater.
There are a number of persistent issues in the
psychology of time that we see as crucial. Perhaps
the most important concerns individual dierences.
For some researchers, individual differences are
an unmitigated nuisance because they dilute the
strong nomothetic trends that they are seeking out.
For others, these dierences are the source of their
whole life’s study (Cronbach, 1957). What is clear
is that when you ask a group of people for an esti-
mate of even a short duration, you get a remarkably
large distribution compared with a number of other
forms of psychophysical assessment (Doob, 1971;
Rammsayer, 1997b). What remain unspecied are
the exact sources of these large individual dierenc-
es. Although the characteristics identied by Block
and his colleagues account for some of this variation,
there remain sources of variation that have yet to be
identied. It is encouraging to see that such eorts
have begun to burgeon in the past decade (Hancock,
2011a; Pos, 2006; Rammsayer, 2002; Zimbardo &
Boyd, 1999, 2008). As noted earlier, perhaps there
are potential resolutions to be had by rening the
methods of measurement so that the tested person is
not expressing his or her estimate in terms of neces-
sarily learned temporal units (i.e., having to express
their estimates in terms of semantic labels such as
seconds). The next challenge concerns the demands
of integration. Important discoveries are coming from
research in the neurosciences (e.g., Eagleman et al.,
2005; Harrington, Haaland, & Knight, 1998). The
central question is how these insights at the level of
neurophysiology express themselves in various be-
havioral outcomes. It is often the case that behavioral
data are explained through reference to associated,
underlying neural structures and functions. Such
linkages often pass the level of necessity, and some
reach the criterion of suciency, although few have
been conrmed as exclusive relationships (Gibbon
& Malapani, 2002). Understanding and elucidating
ps ychology of time • 2 71
AJP 125_3 text.indd 271 7/17/12 4:49 PM
these polymorphic, isomorphic, and homeomorphic
linkages between diering levels of description may
be the most vital challenge for neuropsychology in
the coming decades. This challenge is not conned
to timing and time perception, of course, but is one
primary and persistent goal of all such research. To
conclude, research on the psychology of time is on
the upswing (Block & Zakay, 2001; Grondin, 2010).
Perhaps this is a recurring theme in which time ex-
presses its resurgence near the commencement of
each new century. Even if this blithe speculation is
not so, the future of time looks especially bright at
Address correspondence about this article to P. A. Hancock,
Department of Psychology, University of Central Florida, Or-
lando, FL 32816 (e-mail: email@example.com).
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