Fraisse's Law: Our Perception of Time

Do office hours seem never ending to you? If so, maybe you're being affected by Fraisse's law. In this article, you can learn what it is and how you can use it to your advantage.
Fraisse's Law: Our Perception of Time

Last update: 09 May, 2022

Do you feel that time goes faster when you relax, but the hours you spend at the office seem to go on forever? Although it may seem that your watch is playing tricks on you, in reality, it’s not. In fact, there’s a psychological explanation for this phenomenon and it’s known as Fraisse’s law. It allows us to analyze our own perception of time and how it can be altered.

This law was proposed by Paul Fraisse, a French psychologist who made numerous contributions to the so-called psychology of time. In addition, it’s an important concept in the organizational field because it’s directly related to productivity.

Fraisse’s law

“The time just flew by” is a common phrase you might use when talking about how quickly your weekend break went. Indeed, you’ve probably also often heard others complain about the speed at which they perceive time passing. However, while some people complain about how fast it is, others are annoyed by its slowness. They tend to say things like “I feel like I’ve been at work for about three hours, and I haven’t even been here an hour yet”.

Although we all say things like this at times, we don’t tend to know why it happens. In this respect, Paul Fraisse conducted several studies on our perception of time and developed Fraisse’s law. He determined that we can speak of time in two dimensions. One is objective and measurable and the other is subjective.

The objective part is the one that the clock measures. Meanwhile, the subjective one handles another type of time. It claims that our psychological perception of time varies depending on the interest we feel in what we’re doing.

For example, if you’re doing an activity that you like, you’ll probably perceive that time passes quickly. On the other hand, if you’re studying a boring subject, you may feel that the hands of the clock have slowed down.

Woman looking at the clock at work
The way in which you value time depends on how interested you are in what you’re doing.

Why does this phenomenon occur?

In light of Fraisse’s work, other researchers conducted studies on the subjective perception of time. This means that we can now better understand the psychological mechanisms involved in Fraisse’s law.

Firstly, the evidence suggests that there’s a neurobiological component behind this fact. Indeed, Simen and Matell (2016) published a study on why time seems to fly when we’re having fun. As you probably know, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that participates in the pleasure that appears as a reward in certain situations. However, this study suggests that dopamine also has the ability to alter our perception of time when we do things we like.

Gable and Poole (2012) conducted an investigation on the influence of motivation on our perception of time. In their conclusions, they explained that the higher and more focused the motivation to do something, the greater the distortion of time.

Along similar lines, personality traits appear to have a significant influence on the perception of time. In fact, one scientific article claims that people with narcissistic personality traits tend to see boring tasks as a waste of time. Consequently, they perceive the passage of time as slower than normal (O’Brien, Anastasio, & Bushman, 2011).

Implications in the evaluation of pleasure

Fraisse’s law has implications in different areas of life. One of them is the evaluation of pleasure. Research has demonstrated that we use the subjective measurement of time to determine how pleasurable an experience is (Sackett et al., 2010).

For example, with music, you probably often feel like your favorite songs are too short. You take this subjective perception of time as a measure of how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ something is. In other words, if you feel that something is short-lived, you tend to rate that experience as better than others.

Woman looking at the clock depicting Fraisses law.
You often have the feeling that time passes slowly when you work, which influences your levels of satisfaction.

Fraisse’s law and productivity

Fraisse’s law significantly influences productivity. For example, you often feel like the hours go by slowly when you’re in the office and that you’re not being particularly productive. Consequently, working becomes an overwhelming task.

The feeling that time passes quickly increases the competitive value of distractions. For instance, you may think that you still have a long way to go before hometime and decide that it’s a good time to take a break. That’s because you think you’ve got plenty of time left to fulfill your tasks for the day.

However, this can lead you into the vicious circle of procrastination, which significantly harms your productivity. In view of this fact, it’s best to look for alternatives that turn your work into a pleasant activity. Or at least to make it feel like a neutral experience rather than an unpleasant one.

Finally, we might say that the subjective perception of time is a key factor in job satisfaction. After all, if time appears to go slowly when you’re working, you’ll feel less comfortable. On the other hand, if you feel that it passes quickly, your brain will value it as a pleasant experience and you’ll enjoy it more.

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  • Fraisse, P. (1963). The psychology of time.
  • Gable, P. A., & Poole, B. D. (2012). Time flies when you’re having approach-motivated fun: Effects of motivational intensity on time perception. Psychological science, 23(8), 879-886.
  • O’Brien, E. H., Anastasio, P. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2011). Time crawls when you’re not having fun: Feeling entitled makes dull tasks drag on. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(10), 1287-1296.
  • Sackett, A. M., Meyvis, T., Nelson, L. D., Converse, B. A., & Sackett, A. L. (2010). You’re having fun when time flies: The hedonic consequences of subjective time progression. Psychological science, 21(1), 111-117.
  • Simen, P., & Matell, M. (2016). Why does time seem to fly when we’re having fun?. Science, 354(6317), 1231-1232.