People perceive events in the future as closer than those in the past, as it helps them to approach, avoid or otherwise cope with the events they encounter, a new study has found.
Researchers suggest that the illusions that influence how we perceive movement through space also influence our perception of time.
The findings provide evidence that our experiences of space and time have even more in common than previously thought.
"It seemed to us that psychological scientists have neglected the important fact that, in everyday experience, people don't evaluate the past and the future in exactly the same way," Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business said in a statement.
Since our perceptions of time are grounded in our experiences of space, Caruso and his colleagues hypothesised that the same illusion should influence how we experience time, resulting in what they call a temporal Doppler effect.
Surveying college students and commuters at a train station, the researchers found that people perceived times in the future as closer to the present than equidistant times in the past, according to the study published in the journal Psychological Science.
Similarly, participants who completed an on-line survey one week before Valentine's Day felt that the holiday was closer to the present than those who were surveyed a week after Valentine's Day.
These findings hint at the relationship between movement in space and perceptions of time; to establish a direct link between the two, the researchers conducted a fourth study using a virtual reality environment.
Caruso and colleagues argue that this orientation toward the future isn't merely a perceptual quirk; they believe it serves an important purpose. Humans haven't yet mastered the art of time travel, so we can't change the past.
However, we can prepare ourselves for the future; perceiving future events as closer may be a psychological mechanism that helps us to approach, avoid, or otherwise cope with the events we encounter.
"This research is important because the idea of psychological distance is central to theory and research in every subfield of psychology - social, developmental, cognitive, clinical - yet there has been an implicit assumption that distance to the past is the same as distance to the future," said Caruso.