Skip to main content

Understanding the Lockdown Time Warp

Mar 9 2021 • 3 min read

What would you say if someone asked you how long it has been since the start of lockdown in the UK? After a bit of head scratching, you would likely arrive at the objectively correct answer.

But what if you were asked how long it has felt like since the start of lockdown? That’s a much more complicated question because our perception of time is highly subjective.

It is subjective because we construct our experience of time in our mind – meaning it can feel like it expands or contracts depending on the context.

Most of us know this intuitively. And the majority of us report that lockdown has distorted their experience of time (80% according to a recent study).

But perhaps few of us really understand why. The answers, provided by a wide range of psychology studies over the past half century, are surprising and varied.

One of the most robust findings from this research is the importance of emotions on our perception of time. It turns out that Pliny was correct when he wrote in AD105 that ‘the happier the time, the shorter it seems’. And that the reverse is also true – it feels like time passes much more slowly when we are feeling rejected, down, or bored. As the saying goes: ‘a watched pot never boils’.

But there’s a paradox at the heart of this research, which is that time can fly by in the moment, but feel much longer when you look back. Psychologists have labelled this the holiday paradox: you perceive a great holiday to be short during the trip away, but it seems to have lasted much longer retrospectively.

In order to understand this phenomenon, it is useful to make a distinction between the experiencing self (our moment-to-moment consciousness) and the remembering self.

It turns out that novel experiences, such as the kind we might encounter on a good holiday, pass by as quick joyful moments for the experiencing self. But for the remembering self, novelty produces more vivid memories, which skew our perception of these events when we look back.

This is because we partly judge how much time has passed during a certain period by searching our memory of that period. And the more vivid memories we find, the more time we assume has passed.

For many of us, a lockdown existence relatively shy of novel stimuli and full of repetitive daily routines will have slowed the passage of time for our experiencing self. But this very lack of novelty will ultimately result in our remembering self having a different perception of time, with few vivid memories to call upon. We can think about this as a kind of holiday paradox in reverse.

Looking forward, it is possible that as the economy begins to open up, previously routine activities (like hugging your grandchildren, going to the swimming pool, or having a meal with friends) suddenly feel like emotionally-charged, novel events.

And if that’s the case, it is likely that the next 12 months will fly by for our experiencing selves and linger in the memories of our remembering selves.

Read recommended blogs

What Do People Think is a Fair Salary Increase in a Time of High Inflation? What Do People Think is a Fair Salary Increase in a Time of High Inflation?

Imagine that your country is currently experiencing an inflation rate of 10.5% (as it was in the UK in December 2022). The government decides to increase the salaries of public sector employees by 3.5%. Would you say that is fair? Now imagine exactly the same scenario, except that inflation is 7% (rather than 10.5%) and...

Jan 30 2023 • 3 min read

Jan 30 2023 • 3 min read

Keep Your Friends Close, and Your Friends of Friends Closer Keep Your Friends Close, and Your Friends of Friends Closer

Imagine that you are looking to change jobs. And you think that there might be people in your social network who can help you to get into a new industry. Who do you think is going to be most useful at helping you out? Do you think it might be someone who is close to...

Oct 3 2022 • 4 min read

Oct 3 2022 • 4 min read

Join The Thousands of Others Who Have Already Read This Post on Social Norms Join The Thousands of Others Who Have Already Read This Post on Social Norms

Would you adjust your alcohol intake if you were told that most people drink less than you? Have you ever opted for something labelled ‘most popular’ when you were unsure which option to choose? The above tactics are examples of descriptive social norms, which in recent years have become a go-to marketing method across the...

Sep 6 2022 • 3 min read

Sep 6 2022 • 3 min read

Interested in working with us?

Get in touch at

Copied to clipboard