Sex sells – but not how you think
The new research also hits on an unexpected, and surprising, possibility. In one experiment, subjects were shown photos designed to elicit physical symptoms similar to arousal – increased heartbeat and respiration, for example – that weren't actually sexual in nature. In that experiment, the subjects' perception of time was similar to those individuals who had seen photos of attractive women, suggesting that sex may not be the only driver of this temporal response.
"There could be many other situational factors that can alter the perception of time," Kim says. In fact, the next phase of Zauberman and Kim's research focuses on musical cues and time perception, testing the hypothesis that faster-tempo music could produce similar results to their current research findings.
From a marketing and advertising standpoint, Zauberman and Kim's research supports or suggests new ways of influencing customers to make impulse purchases, or subtly wearing down their impulse control mechanism to make them spend a little bit more than they intended. But the professors have a different direction in mind for their work. Conditioning people to change how they perceive time could help reduce impulsive behaviours, be it shopping or eating, they note. If people can look at a set duration of time in a different way, then it can help them realise that the distance isn't quite that far. Six months may seem like an eternity when you're sexually charged and looking at a hundred-dollar bill, but if you can think of that time period in another light – the length of a baseball season, for example – it may not seem so urgent that you get the money now and forsake a $200 payday in half a year.
"If part of the reason people choose short-term rewards has to do with how they perceive time, then maybe we need to intervene in how they approach short-term duration," Zauberman notes. "If we ask them to elaborate on that distance, or break that distance into shorter durations, it might make more sense" to wait.