The Effect of Background Context on the Size–Time Illusion

in Timing & Time Perception
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Previous studies suggest that time perception may be altered by nontemporal stimulus properties, such as size and numerosity, where increases lead to a longer perception of time. These studies have led to the suggestion of a generalized magnitude system that processes abstract quantities. However, the majority of studies on this phenomenon have used simple stimuli, varying along one or two dimensions, and occurring in the same location. Here, we sought to explore the influence of the size–time illusion amongst complex visual scenes. Across five experiments, human participants judged the duration of two visual stimuli, of different sizes, appearing at different spatial locations for a range of sub-second durations. In half of the trials, these stimuli were overlaid on an image of a city street, with one stimulus presented farther away than the other. We found that larger stimuli were judged to be longer, but only when the larger stimulus was presented on the left side of space, and not when presented on the right or when the entire stimulus array was on the left. This effect extended to a marginal bias for left-sided stimuli to be judged as longer. However, we found that the size–time illusion for right-sided stimuli was reinstated when a background city context was presented, which may have been driven by an imposed effect of perceived distance. These results suggest that the size–time illusion is affected by the background context and location against which stimuli are presented, and provide important qualifications to theories of a common magnitude system.

The Effect of Background Context on the Size–Time Illusion

in Timing & Time Perception

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Figures

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    Example of contextual visual stimuli in Experiment 1. Subjects viewed a screen with a centrally presented image of a common city street. Two numbered circles appeared at the two different locations, with the numbers indicating the upcoming order of presentation for visual stimuli. Two red discs of different sizes were then flashed at each of these locations. The first disc always persisted for a standard duration of 520 ms, whereas the second disc was presented for a variable comparison duration, between 300 and 900 ms. Subjects were then required to indicate which disc had been presented for a longer duration. This figure is published in color in the online version.

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    Task design. In separate blocks, subjects performed the temporal discrimination task either with (Context) or without (No Context) the city street background. Additionally, the presentation order also varied between blocks, with the second (comparison duration) stimulus appearing either closer, or farther away in distance. This figure is published in color in the online version.

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    Results of Experiment 1. (Top) Grand-average psychometric curves fit to mean performance data. The point of subjective equality (PSE) was determined by the point on the x-axis corresponding to where subjects were predicted to judge the comparison duration as longer than the standard with 0.5 probability. Separate curves and plots are displayed for different context and distance conditions. (Below) Mean PSE and coefficient of variation (CV) values. Subjects judged the larger stimulus as longer in duration, but only when a background context was provided. * indicates p < 0.05. Error bars indicate S.E.M. This figure is published in color in the online version.

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    Results of Experiment 2. (Top) Grand-average psychometric curves for Experiment 2a, presented as in Fig. 3. (Middle) PSE and CV values for Experiment 2a. Subjects again judged the larger stimulus as longer in duration, but only when the background context was provided. (Bottom) PSE and CV values for Experiment 2b. The size–time illusion was not detected in either condition. * indicates p < 0.05. Error bars indicate + S.E.M. This figure is published in color in the online version.

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    Results of Experiment 3. (A) In Experiment 3a, when standard and comparison stimuli were the same size, a small effect of distance was detected, with the farther stimulus judged as longer in duration, but only between the Context and No-Context conditions. Additionally, a marginal effect of side was detected in the No-Context conditions, in which stimuli on the left side of the screen were judged as longer in duration than stimuli on the right side of the screen. (B) In Experiment 3b, when subjects only performed the No-Context condition, identical to Experiment 2a, we again failed to observe a size–time illusion, indicating that the lack of effect was not driven by subjects performing both Context and No-Context conditions in the same experiment. * indicates p < 0.05, † indicates p < 0.1 Error bars indicate + S.E.M.

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