The Effect of Time on Decision Making

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This is a long post for me, with a quick summary at the bottom for those of us who are time poor!

For a while now I have been fascinated with why people make certain decisions. There are loads of great papers out there, some of which I actually understand!

What has really caught my attention is the effect of time constraints on decision making.

Time Constraints in Games

We see this a lot in games, sometimes obvious other times, not so obvious. It is also used in varying degrees.

For example. In The Walking Dead, it is used to great effect during certain conversations. You will get asked to make a decision and are then given a few choices. Whilst you decide there is a progress meter counting down that will force neutral and probably unwanted response if you don’t choose. Within the context of the game, this forces you to often go with gut instinct over long considered decisions. This gives the feeling of drama and in some cases real dread, often the choices are all seemingly negative – you are left to choose which is least bad.

In Mario, there is always a timer ticking away at the top of the screen. For the most part this does not really mean much as it has ample time to complete a map – or so it seems. However, after deciding to collect everything on a level, you often find time running out and suddenly it all feels more desperate as you sprint to the finish line!

These are obvious examples of time pressure on decision making, you can see a timer and know it will run out at a certain point. Games offer many other types of time constraints, from how you react whilst being shot at to how you are going to get from one side of a map to the other as you are being chased. These kinds of pressures force fast thinking, reflex action and definitely don’t encourage considered or creative solutions. However, these kinds of moments often feel more “real” and emotional, they have more meaning in that split second.

Some people use this to get “gut reaction” decisions in the context of workshops and the like. A popular “game” is 3-12-3 or variations of it. A problem is set and groups of people are set the challenge of solving it. There are then three phases of the brainstorming process, all tightly timed. The first lasts 3 minutes and is used to come up with some ideas. Keeping the initial time tight forces participants to not over think the problem. Next they have 12 minutes to develop a more concrete idea from the ones pooled in the first phase. Finally the groups have 3 minutes to present their idea to the other groups. Rules differ, with individuals and pairs and groups doing various things, but the key principle is always the same. The initial idea generation phase has a short time limit. But why would this produce better ideas?

Decision Field Theory – How We Decide

As I say, there is a lot of research on how we make decisions. The most predominant that I found was a piece called Decision Field Theory published by Jerome R. Busemeyer and James T. Townsend in 1993. In this paper they discuss how people make decisions, based on available information and time etc. Basically, given a set of choices your mind filters through all of the information available. Over time the probability of each choice “winning” changes until either time runs out or there is only one choice left in mind. The key thing for me considering time pressure on decision making, is that changing the amount of time given for a decision to be made, can dramatically change the outcome.

Consider the graph below. The last vertical line (no time pressure) shows a decision that has been given its natural length of time to complete, in this case about 2 seconds. Here Choice A is the obvious winner. However, if the time is cut in half, you can see that at 1 second Choice C would win.

Decision Field Theory

Decision Field Theory

This of course does not tell us if choice A was better or worse than Choice C. The difference is that Choice A is a more considered choice.In fact it may well be wrong, as the information you had when Choice C was winning may have been more accurate than the information you had at Choice A. You may have talked yourself out of Choice C based on some kind of personal bias you were not aware of. All sorts of things change the validity of each choice. Going back to our brainstorming game, in reality the shorter time given for idea generation probably doesn’t yield better ideas. What it does is give you a chance to generate more ideas without any of your natural bias’ kicking in, rather than ideas that are definitely better! After that you have time to be a little more considered and creative.

Construal Level Theory – Abstract vs Concrete Perception in Decision Making

So time is a factor in what decisions you make. Another interesting part of decision making to consider is how we perceive things. In 1998 Yaacov Trope and Nira Liberman published a paper called Temporal Construal Theory, which eventually became part of Construal Level Theory of Psychological Distance (CLT) (2010). This theory proposed that people thought about things differently based on the psychological distance between them and the thing. This could be physical distance, temporal (time), social etc. The further the experience is away from the object, the more abstract / high the level of construal or perception is. The closer the object is to the experience the more concrete / low level the construal is. This is the difference between considering WHY a thing needs to be done and HOW it is going to be done.

In his paper, Not to be Misconstrued, Nicolas Matthews gives a nice example of this. Consider locking a door. If the event of locking the door is in the future, you may think of it in terms of securing the house. This would be WHY you lock the door. When you are actually stood at the door with a key, you are more likely to think of HOW you lock the door as you are in the moment. Put key in door, turn key, check door. The closer to the event you are, the more concrete and real it becomes. You no longer have the luxury to think about why you need to do something; you have to think about how you will do it.

When given a task with unlimited (or at least ample) time, you have the luxury of considering the abstract thoughts of why. You can eliminate choices and come up with new ones and iterate old ones. The closer you are to the point the decision has to be made, the more focused you become on how you are going to achieve the given task.

A little example. You have a wall in front of you and are asked to go over it. To your side you have rope, a ladder and a hook. Given no time limit, there are a few ways you could do this. You could run and jump at the wall and try to climb over. You could create a grappling hook and use that to climb over. Finally you could just put the ladder against it and climb up that. Given those choices, and based on factors such as your own abilities, bias’, height of the wall etc, you may decide to use the ladder. Someone else may create a grappling hook, even though it is not the most practical, it may be more fun. As you are further away in time from the task, you can think of the abstract solutions.

Now imagine that you are being chased towards the wall by a pack of dogs. Rather than taking two minutes to make a choice, you have to make it before you get to the wall in 30 seconds. Suddenly you have no time for abstracts, this is the here and now. At this point, jumping the wall seems like the best and most practical solution for getting over it quickly.

time and decision making 2

If the dogs were to go in a different direction before you get to the wall, other ideas would begin to become better options for you.


Time is an important factor in decision making, one we can’t forget about when designing any kind of system. With gamification as in games, we have the ability to use it to our advantage by imposing time constraints on systems that would otherwise not have them.

By giving shorter time limits to achieve tasks, we limit the number of options that can be considered by people, but by doing so may promote the most practical options to rise to the top. Forcing people into the here and now will make those decisions feel more concrete and real, giving them more immediate meaning.

Giving longer time periods allows people to craft more thoughtful ideas and come to more creative decisions, but can also lead to people dismissing good ideas based on personal bias or other external factors.

Use time to your advantage based on the outcomes you desire. If you want to encourage lots of good practical ideas, reduce the time given. If you want to promote creative and more abstract thoughts, give them longer!

Image courtesy of Danilin /

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21 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed the article, Andrzej. This topic really intrigues me as we are in the midst of raising a generation that has information come at them faster than ever. When I was a teenager I learned about the events of a day, nationally and globally, on the evening news. Kids today see it in real-time, at their finger tips. Super interesting to me to study the effect time constraints have on decision making, and how that overlaps with the pace of the information thrown at them, too. It’s not just time they are up against, but their ability to process more information in that time frame than ever before. Thanks for writing the article!

  2. Ian Moore says:

    Very interesting article. I hadn’t even considered the psychology of decision making in games.

    It is obvious that time constraints increase stress levels but there is also considerable evidence that shorter time constraints produce better decisions at least in individuals with high levels on experience in a domain.

    There is of course evidence which goes against these findings.

    On amusing fact that I came across recently on a UK TV show (IQ with Stephen Fry) was that having a full bladder increases the effectiveness of decision making 🙂

    I can see why this might help make a decision quicker but haven’t found the original source to see why the researcher suggest it actually improves decision making.

    • Hah, yeah QI is a great show! I used needing the loo in an example of personal gamification actually. Lots of people (myself included), will sit there bouncing up and down needing the loo, but determined to finish what they are doing first! The reward – going to the loo!

      • Ian Moore says:

        Thinking about it the same things applies when you are engrossed in any task – in the past I have noticed computer programmers desperately trying to finish a bit of difficult code before doing anything else – and not just programmers but anyone who is totally absorbed.

        Is this delayed gratification or just being absorbed I wonder?

        • a lot of that is Flow – being in the moment with everything else fading away. Then it often comes down to just not wanting to leave something unfinished!!

        • Nice examples 🙂
          I bet that the people, you are talking about, at this moment were involved into an task where they actually had the feeling of being able to solve the problem in ‘a minute’.

          So, they were absorbed (in the flow). We do anything to stay in this situation as long as we can.

          Do you remember the last time you finished an engaging game and (although the last screen was full of fireworks, music, and more looking to reward you for your achievement) you were rather dissapointed that it is over? We crave rather for the challenging process than for the well-earned reward.

          In this case the need to go to the loo even adds an additional (time)pressure to the task ;-). So, it becomes even more challenging and worth to overvome it 😉

          So, I have a new game-element for gamifying processes: “By onboarding the challenge you have to drink at least one bottle of water.”

          • Ian Moore says:

            Yes – any truly engaging project drives out other thoughts (or consumes us). You are right about the feeling of loss. I any truly engaging project there seems to be an element of “I really need to get this finished” – the strange thing is when it is finished you feel a sense of loss and after a short recovery time you start looking for the next thing to do.

            Is this normal or I am just compulsive?

          • This is not just normal but natural.

            1. Our brain has a limited capacitiy of information that it can deal with. Normally you are not using the full capacity of your obvious consciousness. Some of the capacity is always used to think about ‘Being and time’.

            But, if you are experiencing some kind of Flow (a meaningful challenge that almost matches your skills; just a little bit above) your brain starts using all the capacitiy and this means also the part that is thinking about ‘Being and time’. This is why you are experiencing the feeling of loss and why we experience time to move faster while doing something that we are engaged in.

            2. The first rule of a species to be able to survive is to be able to adapt to changes, right? That’s how evolution works. And being able to adapt means to be abel to learn. This is why our brain is an anmazing learning engine. The best way to learn is to be confronted by a challenge that challenges your skills. Our brain is made to look for patterns and so to learn. This is how we evolved and how our brain was challenged for more than 500 million years.
            Of course we developed our pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that differentiates us from the primates but it is just around 2 million years old.
            So, this is why we are still intuitive behaving in a way like if we were pre-primates. Looking for the next thing to do (and to be challenged) is the secret of evolution. So, you are doing good. 😉

          • Ian Moore says:

            Makes sense to me!

  3. Hisocial says:

    Hi Andrzej,

    Interesting. I think that when we talk about time constraints, you also have to take into account the profile of the users. Some users are more likely to “play” into a time-constraint environment than others.

    • There are a few things you have to look at really, this is a pretty generic look at how people deal with decision making and the effects of time. More to come in the future I feel – how my user types deal with time constraints could be a fun investigation!

  4. Ville Kilkku says:

    I don’t quite agree that time-constraints, especially when talking about really short time constraints, could produce better decisions. Quite the contrary, actually, I believe that time-constraints will always result in lower quality decisions, and their main use would be to practice working under such constraints (which do happen in real life), in order to perform better when the real need is there.

    One reason for my stance is that psychological research into intuitive
    thinking confirms that intuitive decisions more often include
    ontological confusions (mistakes on which things affect each other and which things do not) than analytical decisions.

    have different propensities for intuitive thinking, but also people with
    high level of cognitive inhibition make more ontological confusions
    when forced to react in a very limited period of time or while

    is a link to a recent doctoral dissertation on intuitive thinking and
    belief in the supernatural (and it’s based on peer-reviewed articles, so
    considering that the articles passed the publication barrier first,
    this usually indicates fairly high quality):

    Another reason for my stance is the wide criticism of brainstorming as a technique and the lack of evidence in its performance. See, for example,

    ( For an alternative approach to idea creation, see for example the TRIZ method: )

    Finally, some evidence toward the effect that fast decision-making is a trainable skill, for example through video gaming:

    • I shall read that with interest. Not sure I say anywhere you get better decisions, merely that you get different decisions and why and that this is important to understand.

      • Ville Kilkku says:

        I think a lot hinges on what you mean by “natural bias”.

        In the dissertation I linked to, the cognitive inhibition exercised when more time is available uniformly results in better decisions. Of course, the subject was belief in the supernatural, in phenomenons that do not make sense based on our current understanding of the world.

        This sort of “bias” is very useful in enterprise innovation, because it is good that engineers have a proper understanding on the properties of used material, for example.

        This does not mean that there cannot be other bias that negatively affect analytical decision-making. I am just not fully convinced that such bias actually exist.

        • In my ladder example. If I had a fear of ladders and had enough time to not go the jumping over route – the grappling hook may be the option I went for. If I did not have time to make the grappling hook, but had enough time to climb the ladder – I may not have time to worry about my disliking of ladders an just get up it ASAP. By not having too long to over analyse, I decide upon a more practical solution for the time given.

    • The brainstorming one is an interesting one. I think the thing that the research is not taking into account is the social aspect of this kind of decision making. On a practical level, 10 individuals coming up with better ideas on their own is really interesting to know. However, many times these kinds of sessions are as much about bringing a team together as they are about generating the best ideas. The ideas generated may well morph after the event and have things added to them, but the team will feel like they all contributed to whatever is finally used. I think one of the massive issues with brainstorming often comes with over analysing what is being said, thats why I quite enjoy the ones where individuals have a short time to have ideas, then the group has a short time to discuss them. Cuts out a lot of the over thinking!

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Andrzej Marczewski
About Andrzej Marczewski twitter facebook    
Gamification Consultant with Gamification Nation. I love to write about it, talk about it and bore people to death with it! If you really want to get to know me, check out the About page.

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