On Time Distortions Under Stress

Hancock, P.A., & Weaver, J.L. (2005). On time distortions under stress. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomic Science6(2), 193-211.

Under conditions of extreme and life-threatening stress, people often report distortions of time. These distortional experiences are critical since, axiomatically, they occur in circumstances where small variations in behavior can mean the difference between survival and extinction. The present work examines the spectrum of evidence concerning such phenomena including observations from real-world events such as combat, ejection from high-performance aircraft, driving in dangerous environments and from less stressful, yet informative laboratory procedures. A contextual theory is promulgated which postulates that in addition to draining attentional resources, stress prevents the efficient production of such resources. The stress-depleted resources which remain are directed to task relevant activities and consequently attention to time-based cues is minimized resulting in distortion effects for both time-in-passing and for time recollection in memory. A number of practical observations are advanced concerning the performance of professionals who are likely to meet such conditions in their occupations including those in aerospace, military, fire-fighting, law enforcement, and medical emergency service operations. In conclusion, we present a number of future research strategies that may be enacted in order to evaluate this ephemeral, real-world phenomenon.

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