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Psychology of time: how to lose track of time on a website

By Professor Mark Haselgrove, Behavioural Scientist. In this blog, Mark takes a look at how the use of emotion and colour can manipulate an online experience.

The average amount of time a person spends on a website is between 40 to 55 seconds.

Of course, this time will vary - depending on the type of website, and indeed what the person is doing there. But it is still the case that for a lot of the time, people are spending less than one minute on your carefully crafted website.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something about this – to somehow encourage people to spend a bit longer there - to lose track of time with our products or our services.

Well, maybe we can do something about this with some Behavioural Science. But first we need to know a little bit more about how people time things.

Experiments that have investigated the psychology of time tell us that we have an internal clock that is ticking-over all the time in our brains. These ticks feed into an accumulator that adds them all up, and then passes this number on to our short-term memory. We can then use this memory of the number of ticks to estimate how long we have been doing something.

However, just like a real clock, our sense of time is only as accurate as its ticks. If our internal clock suddenly speeds up then the number of ticks in memory will be greater than normal and we will feel like time has slowed down. In contrast, if the clock suddenly slows down then the number of ticks in memory will be less than normal and we will lose track of time.

This sounds quite promising - if we could somehow slow down the speed of the clock then people would think they have spent less time on our website than they actually have. So how can we change the speed of the clock?

Time illo blog


You have probably already experienced the effect of a sudden change in the speed of your internal clock. If you have ever slipped down the stairs, you will have had a sense of time standing still as you fell. Although this experience may seem weird when it happens, it is actually your brain lending you a helping hand. In these sorts of circumstances, you need to be able make fast and precise responses. So, to help you out the brain increases the clock speed – time appears to slow down and you can respond more effectively.

This is arousal, which for psychologists, means a state of physiological responsiveness and general excitement, and it has big impact on our perception of time. For example, when people view emotionally arousing scenes, then they overestimate the time they have spent looking at them.


Web designers are clearly aware of the importance of having a calm website. Here and here we see discussions of how to create a calmer online experience, rather than one that is particularly arousing. In particular this has been achieved though the use of colours such as blues, greens and purples, rather than warmer colours such as red, yellow and orange.

This corresponds with the psychology of time. A number of studies have shown that stimuli presented for identical durations can be judged to last longer when they are red than when they are blue. A concrete example of this effect was described by Gorn and colleagues in 2004. They required people to wait patiently for 17.5 seconds for a website to download. For some people the website colour was blue, for others it was yellow or red. The results revealed that participants perceived the download speed of the website to be significantly faster when its colour was blue. Furthermore, this (entirely illusory) perception of speed mediated people’s likelihood of recommending the website (see also here).

So, should everything be blue?

Probably not. If all websites are blue everywhere all the time, then clocks will just slow down across the board and there will be no point of difference.

Furthermore, there may be circumstances in which you want to encourage people to spend less time on a particular part of a site. Seconds count, however, so with the use of emotion and colour the rhythm of an online experience can be subtly manipulated.

By Professor Mark Haselgrove, Behavioural Scientist


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