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Front Hum Neurosci. 2014 Jun 10;8:415. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00415. eCollection 2014.

Does time ever fly or slow down? The difficult interpretation of psychophysical data on time perception.

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Departamento de Metodología, Facultad de Psicología, Universidad Complutense Madrid, Spain.


Time perception is studied with subjective or semi-objective psychophysical methods. With subjective methods, observers provide quantitative estimates of duration and data depict the psychophysical function relating subjective duration to objective duration. With semi-objective methods, observers provide categorical or comparative judgments of duration and data depict the psychometric function relating the probability of a certain judgment to objective duration. Both approaches are used to study whether subjective and objective time run at the same pace or whether time flies or slows down under certain conditions. We analyze theoretical aspects affecting the interpretation of data gathered with the most widely used semi-objective methods, including single-presentation and paired-comparison methods. For this purpose, a formal model of psychophysical performance is used in which subjective duration is represented via a psychophysical function and the scalar property. This provides the timing component of the model, which is invariant across methods. A decisional component that varies across methods reflects how observers use subjective durations to make judgments and give the responses requested under each method. Application of the model shows that psychometric functions in single-presentation methods are uninterpretable because the various influences on observed performance are inextricably confounded in the data. In contrast, data gathered with paired-comparison methods permit separating out those influences. Prevalent approaches to fitting psychometric functions to data are also discussed and shown to be inconsistent with widely accepted principles of time perception, implicitly assuming instead that subjective time equals objective time and that observed differences across conditions do not reflect differences in perceived duration but criterion shifts. These analyses prompt evidence-based recommendations for best methodological practice in studies on time perception.


perception of duration; probabilistic models; psychometric function; psychophysical function; psychophysical methods

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