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The Psychological Effect of the Countdown Clock

Or: By counting the days until the next Star Wars movie, am I guaranteeing disappointment?

I swore that I wouldn’t be taken in by it again, but of course, I couldn’t resist. After being profoundly disappointed by The Last Jedi — yes, I was an angry nerd, although at least not the toxic kind — I said to myself that I was done over-hyping myself for Star Wars movies. But following the release of the new Star Wars Episode IX trailer, I am once again counting the days until the release of the next movie. By watching the clock so closely, though, am I just prolonging the process and making it all seem longer? And by building up my anticipation, am I setting myself up for disappointment just like I had with The Last Jedi? What exactly is this countdown clock — and others kinds of countdown clocks for that matter — doing to my brain?

Of course, the perception of time is relative to every person and every situation. In fact, there’s a whole field of study in psychology called “time perception,” which deals with why time seems to pass differently in different situations. The reason why “time flies when you’re having fun,” for example, has to do with “horizons.” As Live Science explains, “In a book, for example, horizons lie at the end of every syllable, the end of every word, the end of the next sentence and so on. Time moves according to how we anticipate these horizons.” When you’re having a lot of fun in an activity, your brain anticipates both the nearby horizons (the end every sentence), as well as the distant ones (the end of each chapter). By seeing the “big picture,” this makes the horizons — and time — flutter by. When you’re bored however, while you might be waiting for the end, your brain can only focus on the immediate horizons, and time will seem to move more slowly.

When it comes to countdown clocks specifically, they have some proven psychological effects in a variety of settings, one of which is in sales. As distinguished psychologist from the University of Wisconsin, Shilagh A. Mirgain, explains, “If there’s an item only available for a limited time, many feel that this creates a sense of scarcity, which increases sales during that time because it increases the urgency.” This sales trick is why things like the Pumpkin Spice Latte are such a big deal — because you only have a few weeks to get it, whereas if it was available all the time, it may be less exciting, especially considering what’s actually in it.

Mirgain, who specializes in sports psychology, explains that in sports, countdown clocks create a sense of urgency as well, but it manifests itself in a different way, and the feelings it creates will be dependent upon if a team is winning or losing. If a team is slightly behind in the waning seconds of the game, their awareness of the time can help focus their energy and instill in them a sense of urgency. “This can create anticipatory anxiety, which helps to fuel performance,” she explains. That little time remaining will also allow them to take bigger risks in order to accomplish their goal, hail-mary passes being the prime example.

But too much anxiety can obviously be a bad thing. As sports psychologist Patrick J. Cohn explains, “Athletes who are ‘clutch’ trust in their instincts, but athletes who tend to overthink may become indecisive.” In performance, how those final seconds feel will really come down to how confident someone is in their own abilities.

For a team that’s ahead, Mirgain explains that, that final bell can’t come quick enough. “This is a very different kind of psychology,” she says, adding that here, a team is simply trying to run the clock down, so they’ll be extra cautious and refrain from risky moves. This time may also appear to drag for the team that’s ahead, as all they see is the final horizon (i.e., the end of the game), whereas the underdog is plotting their moves in order to achieve a win, so they’ve got lots of little horizons that speed time up.

While a countdown clock can make us more anxious in sports, there are contexts where it can make us more patient, too. Mirgain uses the example of countdown clocks in public transportation settings, explaining that by knowing that we have five minutes until the next subway train arrives, us normally impatient New Yorkers may be more tolerant because we know precisely when the next train is coming. If we didn’t know how long we had, that five minutes might seem like ten. “That countdown clock gives you a sense of security,” Mirgain explains.

This also works when we’re viewing ads on our phones. Sure, we might hate the fact that we have to wait through 15 seconds of ads before we get to that video of dudes destroying their suits, but just imagine if we didn’t know how long we had until we reached our destination? It would be unbearable. In fact, the ad countdown has become so much more effective at getting us to sit through commercials that some TV stations are using it now so that people don’t go channel-surfing during their commercial breaks.

Mirgain points out that having this awareness of time allows you to calm your anxiety and maybe even accomplish a task: Say you know that you’ve got five minutes before the train comes, that might give you enough time to send that email you need to send. Or, if you’re watching Law & Order reruns on TNT, you know that you have three minutes to go take a piss before it’s back.

But over long periods of time — like my “days until Star Wars” countdown clock — the countdown clock can be a psychological detriment if you watch it too closely. Like the old saying, “a watched pot never boils,” if you watch something too closely, it can result in it feeling like forever. “Greater attention leads to perception of a longer interval of time,” explains Dr. Jeremy Dean on his Psyblog. While he argues that time doesn’t fly when you’re having fun, it definitely slows down when you’re bored, and there’s nothing more boring than watching a clock. So if I decide to make that countdown clock my homepage, it won’t make me feel like I’m getting ever closer to Episode IX — instead, because I see it so frequently, all it will do is remind me that I have such a long time before opening night and it won’t feel like I’m making much progress at all.

Okay, so waiting for the movie sucks, that makes sense. But how does waiting affect the end result? According to Mirgain, it can actually enhance the experience. “When you’re excited about something and anticipating it, some researchers feel that the overall experience is enhanced due to this anticipation,” Mirgain explains. Things like trailers for a movie can further build the excitement, as they give you more things to think about and consider as the movie approaches.

But here’s the catch: The end result has got to deliver. “There’s also something called the ‘let-down effect,’” Mirgain explains. With the ‘Let-Down Effect,’ if you build up all this hype and the end product doesn’t meet your expectations, you could feel quite depressed. This is exactly what happened to me with The Last Jedi (which came out on my birthday). After months of excitement and anticipation, the end result not only disappointed me, but it depressed me. It had such a negative effect on me that I was a mopey asswipe for the rest of the day and even said these words to my wife: “They killed Luke Skywalker on my birthday.”

I know, it’s pathetic, but seriously, that movie really fucked me up, which is exactly why I swore to never do this again. But here I am, eagerly anticipating the next Star Wars movie, hoping it will not only be amazing, but that it will make up for everything I didn’t like in the previous one. So here goes — let’s just hope history doesn’t repeat itself.