Time Waits for No Man, but It Feels That Way to the Powerful

New research finds having power increases the perception one has plenty of time.
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(Photo: isak55/Shutterstock)

(Photo: isak55/Shutterstock)

Got a minute? It’s not a rhetorical question: Many of us constantly feel pressed for time. This adds to our stress level, as we fret about our inability to get everything done.

Of course, no one can add more hours to the day. But newly published research suggests there is a select group that enjoys the all-important perception of having more time: The powerful.

“Given that the objective experience of time is uniform for everyone, it would seem safe to assume that all people perceive time in the same way,” write psychologists Alice Moon and Serena Chen of the University of California-Berkeley. But in five experiments, they found that “power leads to an increase in perceived time availability.”

“Not only does power influence perceived control over time,” they write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, “but perceiving control over time leads to a subjective state that more time is available.”

"We found that even when manipulating power in a context in which participants did not actually have more available time, high-power individuals still perceived greater control over time, and greater time availability."

One of their experiments featured 104 undergraduates, who were told they were participating in a study on personality and team problem-solving. Each was assigned one of two roles—boss or employee—and given a detailed description of their roles and responsibilities. The “boss” was seated in the “high-power chair,” which was cushioned and adjusted to the sit higher than the “low-power chair” used by the “employee.”

After answering a series of questions, both parties filled out a survey measuring their sense of available time. Using a one-to-seven scale, they expressed their level of agreement with such statements as “I feel like there is plenty of time left in my life to make new plans,” and “I have the sense that time is running out.”

The result: The “bosses” felt they had more time than the “employees.” Feeling powerful apparently altered their perception.

Another experiment, conducted online, reached the same conclusion, but added additional insights. After being primed to think of themselves in high- or low-power positions, the participants—103 American adults—also responded to a series of statements such as “I feel in control of my time” and “I find it difficult to keep a schedule because others take me away from my work.”

Not only did the high-power participants perceive themselves as having more time; they also reported having more control over their time. According to Moon and Chen, that sense of control is a likely reason why they feel less pressed for time.

The researchers conceded that, to some extent, powerful people may indeed have the ability to spend more hours of their day, or more days of the year, as they like. However, they note, "we found that even when manipulating power in a context in which participants did not actually have more available time, high-power individuals still perceived greater control over time, and greater time availability."

“This suggests that it isn’t simple the case that powerful people actually have more control over their time,” they argue, “but that powerful people also perceive having control over time, even when they don’t.”

To misquote F. Scott Fitzgerald: The powerful are different than you and I. At least in their own minds, they have all the time in the world.

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