Research Digest

Excerpted from Capital Ideas 

People Feel Closer to the Future than the Past

carusoWhen a police car is approaching, its siren sounds higher-pitched than it does when the car is moving away. This is the well-known Doppler effect, and Eugene M. Caruso, associate professor of behavioral science, says that something similar is happening as we leave the past and approach the future: upcoming events tend to feel closer than those that happened in the past.

Caruso - with Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado Boulder, and Mark Chin and Andrew Ward, both of Swarthmore College - conducted a number of studies in which participants were asked to think about a future or past date and to relay how close they felt this date was from the present. The paper with their conclusions, "The Temporal Doppler Effect: When the Future Feels Closer than the Past," was published in the April 2013 issue of Psychological Science.

A month or a year in the future felt nearer than a month or a year in the past, participants said. Similarly, when participants were asked to think about a specific event, such as Valentine's Day, those who took the survey a week before February 14 were more likely to report that it felt just around the corner, while those who took the survey a week after felt that Valentine's Day had come and gone a long time ago.

Would it be possible to reverse the temporal version of the Doppler effect? The researchers also investigate this question and conclude it is possible. However, they say that people's perception of the future as near at hand relative to the past may be a good thing: thinking about the future makes people better prepared for what lies ahead. - Vanessa Sumo

Photo by Dustin Whitehead

Last Updated 2/21/14