about time

The Fuzzy Meaning of the Phrase ‘Let’s Move This Meeting Forward Two Days’

Photo: Gladiathor/Getty Images/iStockphoto

This week, Science of Us is exploring time: What makes it feel like it’s speeding up or slowing down, how we learn to tell the difference, and how we can learn to control it either way?

Imagine receiving the following email from a co-worker: “Next Wednesday’s meeting has been moved forward two days.”

Now, what day should you show up for the rescheduled meeting? On Monday? Or Friday?

People usually feel very confident about their answer one way or the other, but it turns out that it’s a surprisingly ambiguous question, according to research by Lera Boroditsky, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. She found that people are generally pretty evenly split on whether the new meeting is on Monday or Friday. Not only does Boroditsky’s research mean that you should probably double check the meeting day with your co-worker, it also points to some interesting revelations about how people draw from our ideas about space to think about the abstract concept of time.

When we talk about time, we often borrow spatial metaphors or analogies. Boroditsky offered a couple of examples: “The best is ahead of us; the worst is behind us.” But we sometimes use these spatial metaphors in contrary ways, she said. We could, for example, say either, “we’re approaching the deadline” or “the deadline is approaching” and express basically the same idea, while articulating two different concepts of time. One of these concepts is the ego-moving perspective, in which we perceive ourselves as moving forward through time. The other is the time-moving perspective perspective, in which we think of time as moving toward us, as though we’re standing in a river and facing upstream.

Hence the ambiguity of the question about next Wednesday’s meeting. People with an ego-moving concept of time are more likely to think the meeting has been moved to Friday, because “forward” in their minds refers to the direction they’re headed, forward into the future. But people with a time-moving perspective think of “forward” in reference to the direction that they think time flows: toward them, meaning the meeting is now on Monday.

Interestingly, people are often oblivious to the fact that both answers are equally valid, blind to the arbitrariness of their own concept of how time passes. Boroditsky said that when she asked people to rate their confidence in their answer, either Monday or Friday, they would just look at her blankly — there was only one reasonable answer in their mind.

Boroditsky also found that people are unreasonably confident in their answer despite the fact that their concept of time is mutable. In several experiments, Boroditsky found that people switched from a time-moving or an ego-moving perspective based on how they happened to be thinking of physical movement, pointing again to the fact that we borrow ideas about space to understand the abstract notion of time. She found, for instance, that people who had just gotten off a flight were more likely to answer “Friday.” Having just moved through space, they were more inclined to take an ego-moving perspective, seeing themselves as moving forward through time.

One lesson of Boroditsky’s research: Clarifying the meeting schedule is almost always a good idea, especially if your co-worker is emailing from the airport.

The Fuzzy Way We Talk About Time Can Make You Miss a Meeting