What is Temporal Distortion?

Have you ever walked into a mall or a big-box store — like a Walmart, Target, or IKEA — and found yourself shopping for hours instead of minutes?

For example, if you’ve visited an IKEA warehouse, you might’ve noticed that there are no (working) clocks or windows once you’re inside the store. Most malls have limited skylights and few windows. This exclusion of daylight is an old trick borrowed from casino design. Many casinos don’t have clocks or windows, in the hope that gamblers will lose track of how long they’ve been at the table.

Why? It’s because casinos, malls, and big-box stores want to create a sense of “temporal distortion” for their customers.

Clock Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile on Unsplash

Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile on Unsplash

What is Temporal Distortion?

Temporal distortion — or time distortion — is a change in a person’s perception of time. If you’ve ever been reading or playing a video game and told yourself “I’ll just do this for five minutes” then looked up to see that two hours have passed, you’ve experienced a temporal distortion.

The act of creating an environment that purposely makes it difficult to tell how much time has passed is common in retail and digital design. Having fewer items that remind you how long you’ve been in the store gets people to shop, play, or engage for longer periods of time. Temporal distortion could be considered a dark pattern, depending on how addictive or ethical the activity you’re encouraging.

How Does Temporal Distortion Help Brands’ Bottom Lines?

The most obvious benefit of temporal distortion for stores is getting customers to spend longer in the shop. If people are spending hours instead of minutes shopping, they’ve more likely to pick up an impulse purchase or buy more items overall.

Why? There’s another behavioral science principle that can take hold if customers are in the store too long — decision fatigue.

Making decisions consumes a lot of mental energy. Decision fatigue describes how a series of choices can exhaust people’s brains, and make them more susceptible to poor decision-making, or unwilling to make decisions at all. Steve Jobs famously fought decision fatigue by wearing the same clothes every day to save his mental resources for more important choices.

Research shows that decision fatigue can cause customers to make increasingly irrational or poor choices the longer they shop. This effect also makes people more susceptible to sales and marketing techniques, and impulse purchases.

How to Apply Temporal Distortion

This principle can be a helpful one, but we need to make sure to apply it ethically. For example, the Venetian casino in Las Vegas, uses Temporal Distortion in an engaging way. Believe it or not, the picture below is part of the casino’s interior, with its ceiling painted with a beautiful blue sky to simulate being outside.

Venetian Casino Interior; Source: TripAdvisor

Venetian Casino Interior; Source: TripAdvisor

This use of temporal distortion creates value for customers — it’s engaging and adds to the immersive concept of a canal in Venice, Italy. The ceiling itself was created with 250 gallons of paint and doesn’t change, but there are shifts in lighting designed to simulate twilight when the sun outside goes down.

If we over-rotate with our application of Temporal Distortion, the Gruen Effect might kick in. This principle describes an intentionally overwhelming environment, so that the moment people enter a store they are totally engrossed. An overstimulating environment causes customers to lost track of time, forget their original reason for going to the shop, and make more impulse purchases.

The bottom line

Our environment drives our behavior much more than we realize. And this is especially true when making purchase decisions. If you apply Temporal Distortion, make sure you do so responsibly. Look after your customers’ needs and desires first and resist the temptation to create a purposely overwhelming or manipulative environment.

newsletter

The science of experience design, in your inbox.

Sign up for the Choice Hacking newsletter and I'll send you a free eBook, "5 Psychological Principles That Will Transform Your Experience."