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Douwe Draaisma: how skilled are people at estimating time?

How skilled are people at estimating time?

A few years ago, the land outside the dykes north of the Frisian village of Marrum was flooded as a result of a severe November storm. A herd of horses was surprised by the rapidly rising water and were driven together onto a small piece of land that was just a bit higher than the surrounding land. The fire brigade and an army corps of engineers could not find a way to get the horses to safety. Two days later the horses were in acute danger of drowning.

Douwe Draaisma

The rescue came from three young women on horseback. They rode to the trapped horses and then back to the dyke, followed by the long string of horses. Many iconic photographs and film recordings were made, and everyone remembers them.

How long ago did this take place? When giving lectures, I’ve repeatedly asked that question to attending public. On my suggestion, ‘Was it less than six years ago?’ plenty of hands are raised. Seven, eight, nine years ago, some may say. Nobody believes that it had happened more than ten years ago. In reality, the event occurred in 2006. The explanation for this underestimation is the phenomenon of ‘telescopy’, first suggested by the British psychologist James Sully in 1881. Sully had noticed that a public event which creates a great amount of commotion is estimated to have taken place more recently than is in fact the case. The cause is simple: such events produce sharply defined and detailed memories, and these lead you to underestimate the time that has passed since the event.

prof. dr. D. (Douwe) Draaisma
First name
Professor history of psychology
Last modified:14 September 2020 12.29 p.m.
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