Changing time and emotions

Pierre-Yves Geoffard, Stéphane Luchini


In this paper, we consider that our experience of time (to come) depends on the emotions we feel when we imagine future pleasant or unpleasant events. A positive emotion such as relief or joy associated with a pleasant event that will happen in the future induces impatience. Impatience, in our context, implies that the experience of time up to the forthcoming event expands. A negative emotion such as grief or frustration associated with an unpleasant event that will happen in the future triggers anxiety. This will give the experience of time contraction. Time, therefore, is not exogeneously given to the individual and emotions, which link together events or situations, are a constitutive ingredient of the experience of time. Our theory can explain experimental evidence that people tend to prefer to perform painful actions earlier than pleasurable ones, contrary to the predictions yielded by the standard exponential discounting framework.


  • One contribution of 12 to a Theme Issue ‘Rationality and emotions’.

  • 1 Although the time production method leads usually to larger underestimations of the real duration than the analogue scale, these two methods are in general largely correlated (Osato et al. 1995). It seems also that the difference between the two methods varies with the complexity of the task (Sawyer et al. 1994).

  • 2 There is an International Affective Picture System (IAPS: Center for the Study of Emotion and Attention, CSEA-NIMH 1995) that has been standardized for self-assessed valence and arousal on large samples of subjects.

  • 3 In some studies, the heart rate is also used as a proxy of physiological arousal (see Fox & Calkins 2000). This is however problematic insofar as heart rate changes are also a classic index of the amount of attention paid to a particular task (Angrilli et al. 1997).

  • 4 This is not so clear for the case of hyperbolic and quasi-hyperbolic discounting (see, Laibson 1997; Frederick et al. 2002, for a more detailed discussion of this). Usually, hyperbolic discounting is interpreted either as being a declining discount rate (hence fitting the second experimental setting), or as a ‘momentary salience for the present’ such as in Benabou & Tirole (2002) (hence fitting the first experimental setting). However, it must be said that the fact that a person did stay longer at a party as in Ainslie's example (Ainslie 1992), contrary to his initial decision, might not have occurred if this same person had performed some other action, say running errands at the supermarket. In that case, the first type of experiments dealing with duration of stimuli may also be of interest for economists.

  • 5 The OFC is located within the frontal lobes, resting above the orbits of the eyes. It is defined as the part of the prefrontal cortex that receives projections from the magnocellular, medial, nucleus of the mediodorsal thalamus (see Rolls 2004, for a detailed description of the functions of the OFC).

  • 6 It is not our purpose here to insist on the ‘efficiency’ of emotions in decision-making. This is however a particularly interesting subject. Elster (1998) presents a stimulating discussion of this issue.

  • 7 In their study, there were mainly patients with dorsolateral frontal cortex (DLFC) lesions.

  • 8 Judgements on time therefore depend on ‘pulse counting’ (Varela 1999).

  • 9 However, some of their cognitive abilities are damaged—for example, non-OFC participants show an impairment in the spatial memory test. What this seems to indicate is that emotions and time perception are not related to the prefrontal cortex as a whole, but are situated particularly in the OFC (see Picton et al. 2006).

  • 10 See also Varela (1999) for a (neuro)phenomenological analysis of this argument.

  • 11 In that sense, emotions are not simply ‘visceral factors’ (Loewenstein 2000) such as hunger or drowsiness.

  • 12 Note that our analysis does however depart from the approach of Gilbert et al. (2002). They consider that ‘our current reactions (to imagined events) are contaminated by our current (affective) circonstances’ (p. 432) while, in our proposition, emotions are by definition a differential and hence are not some sort of bias.

  • 13 See Elster (1998) on the definition of meta-emotions.

  • 14 The exponential transformation implies that we can write B(t) < 1 = B(0) for a positive discount factor τ and B(t′) = B(t)B(t′ − t).

  • 15 Formally, −/B = −(1/B) × ∂B/∂T = τ is constant. More general specifications that still satisfy time-consistency are recursive utility (Koopmans 1960) or variational utility (Geoffard 1996).

  • 16 Jevons (1905), quoted by Loewenstein (1987).

  • 17 This argument has spawned a lively debate in philosophy and we do not intend to dwell upon this issue too much in this paper. See Masson (1995) for an extensive review on time and identity, especially in the context of economics. Masson (1995) also provides other interesting arguments based on survival, existential nodes and life trajectories, which can justify certain types of time preference. However, it seems to us that the major difficulty that remains is where to draw the line between arguments concerning time preference as such and arguments concerning future ‘utilities’ (uncertainty, opportunity costs)—see Frederik et al. (2003).

  • 18 Remember that the discount factor is a decreasing function of anticipated duration.

  • 19 For the sake of simplicity, we now note B[Δ(t, e)] = B(t, e).

  • 20 Nevertheless, one could argue that when events are in the distant future, it may be cognitively difficult to represent them and to make explicit time-outcome trade-offs. Manzini & Mariotti (2004) call this phenomenon time vagueness. In this situation, emotions may also have a strong impact as a heuristic for decision-making.

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