Putting a Face on the Crushing March of Time

Nicholas Hune-Brown is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for Toronto Life, The Walrus, Reader's Digest, The Believer, and...

Humans are terrible narcissists. We’re forever gazing out into the world searching for our reflected image, unilaterally assigning human charms and foibles to creatures and objects that were doing perfectly fine on their own. We give people names to gerbils and hurricanes. We make cancer “vengeful” and turn love into some chubby baby with a bow and arrow. Our affections are so malleable, our brains so eager to embrace the merest insinuation of humanity, that you can stick some googly eyes on a rock and it will immediately earn a place in our hearts. It’s kind of weird, but it’s who we are.

Our tendency to anthropomorphize everything from pets to geometric shapes to abstract concepts helps us make these things worthy of our care and sympathy. Children, who have little experience with non-human entities, will see the sun as smiley or the clouds as frowny because human motivations are what make sense to them. Anthropomorphizing can be a way of understanding something, of creating empathy.

Recently, some researchers have begun to look at the ways that anthropomorphism affects our judgment. If something takes on human characteristics, does your attitude towards it suddenly become more complex? Do all of the anxieties and expectations that come with human interaction—the trust issues and power games—suddenly get foisted onto your relationship with a googly-eyed chunk of granite?

In a study in the Journal of Consumer Research, Frank May and Ashwani Monga looked at the effects of anthropomorphizing that most inexorable of concepts, time, on different people. As an abstract system, time would seem tricky to imbue with human characteristics, but we’ve managed to do it. It is “Father Time.” It “moves fleetingly,” “heals all wounds” or must be “killed,” like some powerful human adversary. In their study, the researchers quote Dickens: “Old Time, that greatest and longest-established spinner of all … his factory is a secret place, his work is noiseless, and his hands are mutes.”

May and Ashwani are interested in time during very particular circumstances; in “intertemporal settings,” situations where you have to wait, time takes on specific characteristics. While time in general can be powerful or sneaky or have any number of other attributes, wait time is always adversarial—it’s the gap before a reward. In one famous experiment, kids were given the choice between having one marshmallow immediately or two later. Wait time is what makes them choose the first (worse) option: it’s the enemy standing between you and what you really want.

If wait time is the adversary, then, does anthropomorphizing it change our ability to defeat it? And will it affect powerful individuals differently than those who feel as if they have little control in their lives? “Just as power dynamics emerge between individuals,” May and Ashwani write, “they also emerge between individuals and a powerful wait time that seems human.”

To test their theory, May and Ashwani conducted five different, related experiments. In one, local shoppers were first asked to fill in a survey that gauged how powerful they felt in life and how strongly they anthropomorphized time, questions like: “To what extent do you think of time as having a will of its own?” They were then asked to choose one of two gift certificates—a $5 coupon that could be used immediately or a $10 coupon that could only be used a week later. In another, the researchers offered participants two products: the iPad Mini or the (fictional) iPad Mini-2, a superior product that could only be delivered in 60 days. The researchers then asked them to either imagine time “standing between you and the iPad” or “a real person named Tyme” blocking them from their reward.

Across the tests, the results were the same: people who had high tendencies toward anthropomorphism and felt less powerful were more likely to choose the smaller-sooner option, taking the $10 or inferior iPad because they couldn’t stand the idea of conquering the wait time. They were less patient, more likely to be defeated. Those who felt powerful, meanwhile, weren’t affected by the idea of a personified time.

The results make a kind of intuitive sense. Powerful individuals don’t make their decisions based on the expectations of the people around them. They are confident in their reasoning. They’re in control. Low-power individuals, on the other hand, “attend to the characteristics of powerful others.” The tests also gibed with earlier studies, in which other researchers found that people who felt powerless looked at slot machines as more risky when they were given some vaguely human features. If you don’t have a lot of power, humans can be more intimidating than inanimate objects. As the researchers write: “the aversive force of wait time will seem more potent… only to those who feel less potent themselves.”

Perhaps these experiments ultimately tell us more about power dynamics than they do about anthropomorphism. We all know about the ways a sense of entitlement commands respect. We know about the kind of harmful spirals disempowered people often find themselves circling. We know that the powerless will defer to confident. It turns out you only need to draw a smiley face on a slot machine or imagine time as an intimidating old man to get the same result.

An earlier version of this story misattributed other studies not conducted by May and Ashwani to those researchers.

Studies Show runs every Thursday.

Image via Mike DelGaudio / Flickr

Nicholas Hune-Brown is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for Toronto Life, The Walrus, Reader's Digest, The Believer, and many other publications.