How Do We Experience Time When We’re Waiting for Something Bad to Happen?

When we’re waiting for something unpleasant to happen, does time seem to move more slowly, or does it just fly by? 

This was the question posed by the researchers at the University of Helsinki’s Department of Psychology and Logopedics. 

Previous research shows that people estimate unpleasant or threatening events as lasting longer than good or neutral events.(1) But the study conducted at the University of Helsinki aimed to further investigate this phenomenon—asking whether the anticipation of aversive events impacts time perception in that waiting period. 

Continue reading to learn more about the study and the results.

Different Situations Alter Time Perception

The way we perceive time is always changing. It can rush past us when we’re having fun, and slow down when we’re bored. What has been unclear is how waiting for certain events can impact our perception of time. 

To explore this further, the researchers developed two main questions: 

  1. Does the anticipation of seeing an unpleasant image make people overestimate the passage of time? 
  2. Does one’s level of anxiety predict the overestimation of time?

Perception of Time When Waiting for an Aversive Stimulus

The current study involved 42 participants who completed a temporal bisection task. In the visual task, the participants were informed that they had either a 50% or a 0% chance of seeing a disturbing image at the end of the timed interval. 

The three experimental conditions were: 

  • Anticipating an aversive image and then seeing the image (threat + image condition) 
  • Anticipating an aversive image and then seeing a blank screen (threat + blank condition) 
  • Anticipating a blank screen and then seeing the blank screen (safe condition) 

The goal was to measure how participants perceived time duration during the anticipation of the images. 

Next, the researchers measured state anxiety by asking participants to rate their anxiety level while waiting for the image to show up.

Research Findings

The researchers found that when participants were expecting an unpleasant image, their sense of time perception slowed down.(2)

In other words, those who were expecting something unpleasant to pop up felt that the waiting period was longer than it actually was. 

These findings are consistent with previous research that has shown that exposure to an aversive stimulus and anticipation of an aversive stimulus is linked to a slowing down of subjective time. 

Next, they found that participants felt significantly more anxious when anticipating an unpleasant picture than when anticipating a blank page. Furthermore, they found that higher anxiety scores were linked to longer time estimates. This finding contradicts previous research that suggests anxiety is associated with an underestimation of elapsed time.

Expanding Our Understanding of Time Perception

Time perception is affected by many different variables, including one’s current mental state and well-being. 

More and more evidence suggests if you think something bad is going to happen, that waiting period will seem longer. 

Why does this matter? 

We know that individuals with psychological conditions such as anxiety or depression may feel a distorted sense of time. Some may feel like their lives are at a standstill, while for others time appears to be passing in the blink of an eye.

Our MetaChron project aims to understand and modify time perception to help individuals struggling with mental health conditions. We hope that our research will help people to better understand their own perception of time and uncover ways to modify it.

At Virtualtimes, we analyze and study the sense and structure of time by generating a flow state through the use of VR gaming. Funded by the European Union, this project aims to understand time perception and help improve symptoms of psychological disorders by measuring and altering the perception of time.



  1. Droit-Volet, S., Mermillod, M., Cocenas-Silva, R., & Gil, S. (2010). The effect of expectancy of a threatening event on time perception in human adults. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 10(6), 908–914.
  2. Harjunen, V. J., Spapé, M., & Ravaja, N. (2022). Anticipation of aversive visual stimuli lengthens perceived temporal duration. Psychological research, 86(4), 1230–1238.