It’s Time to Rethink Time

All the signs are that we are becoming an impatient nation, with attention spans that are rapidly declining.  This is certainly the position of noted technology sceptic Nicholas Carr who cites a variety of evidence to support this claim.

First, back in 2006, researchers found that a third of online shoppers abandon a retail site if the pages took four seconds or more to load.  Other studies by companies like Google and Microsoft subsequently found that it takes a delay of just 250 milliseconds in page loading for people to start abandoning a site. Considering that it takes about 400 milliseconds to blink an eye this does not allow much time.  And a more recent study of online video viewing from researchers Shunmuga Krishnan and Ramesh Sitaraman shows advances in technology appears to be reducing our patience.  The examined over 23 million online video views and found that people rapidly started abandoning a video after a two-second delay.  But perhaps the more interesting finding is that they identified a relationship between higher connection speeds and higher abandonment rates.  So, as Carr points out, ‘As we experience faster flows of information online, we become less-patient people’.  This certainly suggests that the tools that we use, affect the way that we see the world and as such ever faster connectivity and processing speed is reducing our patience and attention spans.  On this basis, we feel we have ever decreasing amounts of time available and as such, there is an arms race for advertisers and technologists on how to get ever more efficient at getting a message across as quickly as possible.

But is it really this simple?  We don’t talk very much about time perhaps because we are a little like fish swimming in water.  It’s such a fact of life that we assume the way we don’t even notice it but when we do we assume everyone else thinks about it is the same as the way us.  But as Henry James pointed out in 1890, ‘Time seems subject to the law of contrast.’  In other words, the way we perceive time is something that is context and person dependent.  And if this is the case is it something that advertisers need to better to consider as part of their repertoire.

In his essay, Brain Time, David Eagleman cited many examples of the way in which time is actually a brain construction.  He notes how we have all experienced when glancing at a clock that the second hand sometimes seems to take longer than normal to move—as though the clock has momentarily stopped.  Or when something terrifying happens, time feels as if it is slowing down.  In the laboratory, it’s possible to distort perceptions of time using rapid eye movements or after watching a flickering light. If we introduce a delay between an action and the sensory feedback, it can feel as if the timing of the actions and sensations is actually reversed.  So time is not as straightforward as it first appears, our perception of it seems eminently malleable.

One of the leading thinkers in this area is Philip Zimbardo.  He identified three broad orientations in which we think about time – past, present and future.  Someone that has a past orientation to time tends to believe that what happened in the past influences their present thoughts, feelings, and behaviour.  Those living in the present tend not to consider that what they currently do will have any implications for them in the future and those with a future orientation tend to defer gratification for future rewards.  It’s easy to see that in the West we are typically future-oriented and as such we tend to be impatient and time obsessed as the ‘present’ is always a means to an end which is some point in the future.  Other regions such as Mexico famously have a mañana attitude based on a feeling that as they cannot affect the future, we will do today only those things that must be done today.  So fundamentally the way we think about time is very much based on social-cultural influences.

And what about the situations in which we find ourselves?  One of the key findings in time research is that time slows down when we are engaged in new experiences and environments.  So go away for a week’s holiday, doing a lot of different things and it feels as if you have been away for much longer.  On the other hand, time passes much more quickly when you are engaged in an activity that occupies your attention.  This is either active absorption that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’ or it may be passive absorption, such as when we are watching television or online browsing or active, when we are concentrating on a task, such as playing a musical instrument.

So it is little wonder that technology is shaping the way in which we experience time, as we are often in a state of passive absorption when using our many different devices.  In this state, time is passing quickly and as Carr points out, the changing nature of the technology itself is shaping expectations about time passing.  Our online environment combined with our Western attitude towards time is causing us to feel increasingly time poor causing us to have shorter attention spans and be more impatient with delays.  And ultimately not to engage with the subject matter.

So what is an advertiser to do?  On the one hand, it’s tempting to experiment more with the online advertising medium to see if there are ways to refocus consumers, to attempt to capture that same feeling of the second hand of the clock having frozen.  But ultimately it’s perhaps about recognising that brands need to create relationships and experiences where there is that sense of flow for consumers.  And this is the rationale for brands such as Nike and Apple to focus their retail outlets more on this rather than shifting boxes.  And why, by incorporating singing and dancing into the onboard recitation of safety rules, Virgin Airlines tries to shift customers into a more positive bond with the company.

Declining attention spans have perhaps drawn our attention to the way we think about time.  Maybe now marketers can spend some quality time thinking how to make the best use of it.

This article first appeared in BRAD 60th Magazine

By Colin Strong

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Colin Strong is Head of Behavioural Science at Ipsos. In his role he works with a wide range of brands and public sector organisations to combine market research with behavioural science, creating new and innovative solutions to long standing strategy and policy challenges. His career has been spent largely in market research, with much of it at GfK where he was MD of the UK Technology division. As such he has a focus on consulting on the way in which technology disrupts markets, creating new challenges and opportunities but also how customer data can be used to develop new techniques for consumer insights. Colin is author of Humanizing Big Data which sets out a new agenda for the way in which more value can be leveraged from the rapidly emerging data economy. Colin is a regular speaker and writer on the philosophy and practice of consumer insight.

Categories Marketing, Psychology, Technology