Time sometimes feels like it is flying by or slowing down. Previous research indicates objective number of items, subjective affect, and heart rate all can influence the experience of time. While these factors are usually tested in isolation with simple stimuli in the laboratory, here we examined them together in the ecological context of a virtual subway ride. We hypothesized that subjective affective experience associated with objective crowding lengthens subjective trip duration. Participants (N = 41) experienced short (1-2 min) immersive virtual reality subway trips with different levels of public crowding. Consistent with the immersive nature of decreased interpersonal virtual space, increased crowding decreased pleasantness and increased the unpleasantness of a trip. Virtual crowding also lengthened perceived trip duration. The presence of one additional person per square meter of the train significantly increased perceived travel time by an average of 1.8 s. Degree of pleasant relative to unpleasant affect mediated why crowded trips felt longer. Independently of crowding and affect, heart rate changes were related to experienced trip time. These results demonstrate socioemotional regulation of the experience of time and that effects of social crowding on perception and affect can be reliably created during a solitary virtual experience. This study demonstrates a novel use of Virtual Reality technology for testing psychological theories in ecologically valid and highly controlled settings.
Supplementary information: The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1007/s10055-022-00713-8.
Keywords: Crowding; Emotion; Heart rate; Time perception; Virtual reality.
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