Time overestimation and obesity are linked at a psychological level

New research has found that our body weight is associated with our sense of time. The study, published in the Journal of Health Psychology, provides more evidence that a person’s body weight is related to how they perceive the world around them.

“Time cognition deeply permeates our existences by influencing all daily choices in a way that can be outside our consciousness,” said study author Carmelo M Vicario, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Messina.

“We recently found that hunger and satiety can affect the subjective experience of time, so we wondered whether this cognitive measure could be useful to explain the failure to control impulsivity towards excessive food intake, as well as the low motivation and adherence to lifestyle interventions in obesity.”

The researchers had 92 obese participants and 182 healthy controls complete a time-estimation task, in which a black circle appeared on a computer screen and then turned green at random intervals of between 1 to 12 seconds. The participants were required to estimate — without using any clocks — the time it took for the black circle to change color.

The researchers found that obese participants, compared to the control group, tended to overestimate the duration of the visual stimuli. In other words, obese participants were more likely to say that it took longer for the black circle to change color.

The finding indicates that “time overestimation and overeating can be linked at a psychological level,” Vicario told PsyPost. “A reversed pattern of results (i.e., time underestimation) was documented in a previous study that examined time perception in anorexia nervosa.”

“Taken together, these studies suggest that the experience of time might represent a predictive factor of eating habits in humans.”

Obesity could influence perceptions of distance as well. Another study, conducted by psychologists at Purdue University and Colorado State University, found that overweight people tended to see things as farther away than average weight people.

The altered perception of time and distance could make it more difficult for obese individuals to lose weight.

“[It] might undermine their motivation to achieve the goal to lose weight, in agreement with the evidence that individuals are less motivated to achieve future goals when these are perceived distant in time,” the researchers wrote in their study. “Furthermore, and for similar reasons, a time overestimation bias might also discourage motivation to increase their physical activity.”

The research includes some limitations. It is still unclear, for instance, if obesity causes an altered perception of time or if an altered perception of time contributes to obesity.

The study, “Time is overestimated in obesity: A cohort study“, was authored by Carmelo M. Vicario, Vanni Caruso, Craparo Giuseppe, and Kim Felmingham.