One of the unsung benefits of being a kid is the ability to convincingly blame your lateness on anyone and anything else: A parent got stuck at work longer than expected, the school bus hit traffic, someone in the neighborhood carpool hit some kind of snag and held everybody up. When you have to rely on adults to shuttle you from place to place, you’re more or less blameless if the schedule falls apart. Once you become one of those adults, though, all bets are off.
But according to a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, not all perpetually late adults are created equal: The way you measure time in your 20s, it seems, looks a lot different than how you do it in your 70s.
Being on time requires something called time-based prospective memory, or remembering to do something in the future. The problem with much of the research on this particular topic, the authors noted, is that most lab-based tasks are mind-numbingly simple, like remembering to hit a button at certain intervals, while real-life tasks typically have more complicated moving parts. Take, for example, the act of getting yourself to an appointment on time: You have to know what time to arrive, but also how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B, to account for train delays or time spent searching for parking, and to know when to start getting ready so you can leave on time.
For their study, then, the researchers made things a little more complex. As a first step, they administered a quiz to two separate groups of volunteers — one of college students, and the other of older adults in their 60s, 70s, and 80s — and then asked them to guess how long it had taken them to complete (half of each group listened to music as they worked, while the other half took the quiz in silence). Afterwards, participants were given 20 minutes to work on a puzzle, with the caveat that they should make sure to leave themselves enough time at the end of the window to retake the previous quiz.
Volunteers in both age brackets, the researchers found, were more or less equally successful in leaving themselves enough time — but they arrived at the same result in different ways, with the older volunteers relying more on their own mental clocks and the younger ones using more external cues, like the songs, to guide their perception of time as it passed. “Results suggest for the first time that younger and older adults do not always utilize similar timing strategies,” the authors wrote, “and as a result, can produce differential timing biases under the exact same environmental conditions.” For older people in particular, lateness is often as simple as a misjudgment of how quickly time is passing. Young ’uns, on the other hand, don’t have that same excuse.