What Time Means to Others: Expectations of Behavior Based on Time Use Information

ABSTRACT - The use of time in making judgements of others was investigated in terms of sex-role related behavior, parental-role behavior, and fitness related behavior. Subjects in an experiment which presented descriptions of people in terms of how much time per week they spent on various activities, varied in terms of the individual's gender and time spent watching television. Results show that time spent in activities plays a role in how people are perceived by others. Implications of these findings include remaining gender role expectations, inferences about a competitive model of time use in addition to broader issues of making judgements about people from time spent in activities.


Jonathan E. Schroeder (1989) ,"What Time Means to Others: Expectations of Behavior Based on Time Use Information", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 354-358.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 354-358


Jonathan E. Schroeder, University of California, Berkeley


The use of time in making judgements of others was investigated in terms of sex-role related behavior, parental-role behavior, and fitness related behavior. Subjects in an experiment which presented descriptions of people in terms of how much time per week they spent on various activities, varied in terms of the individual's gender and time spent watching television. Results show that time spent in activities plays a role in how people are perceived by others. Implications of these findings include remaining gender role expectations, inferences about a competitive model of time use in addition to broader issues of making judgements about people from time spent in activities.


The concept of time as an area of importance to consumer behavior is becoming evident to a number of researchers (e.g. Gross 1987, Hirschman 1987, Jacoby, Szybillo, and Berning 1976). Work has progressed in such areas as the allocation of time to activities (Wilson and Holman 1984), how consumers spend their time (de Grazia 1962, Robinson 1977), time and leisure (Hawes 1977) and the complementarity and substitutability of activities (Holbrook and Lehmann 1981). Within other social science fields, time remains an issue of enduring, while perhaps not mainstream, interest (cf. Becker 1965 (economics), Hall 1983 (anthropology), Robinson 1977 (social psychology), Zerubavel 1981 (sociology)). In psychology, time has been researched as a perceptual variable, (Fraisse 1984), as a process integral to relationships (Werner and Haggard 1985), as an individual difference (Bond and Feather 1988, Strack, Schwartz, and Gschneider 1985) as well as an important methodological variable (Kelly and McGrath 1988).

Time Budget Research

Much of the research dealing with time has centered around how people "spend" their time. How one spends his or her time has important ramifications not only in terms of one's goals and activities, but in terms of how one is perceived by others. Some activities are seen by others as involuntary, others may be seen as under discretion. However, within those categories, what the individual does still matters to the observer. The type of work one does, for instance, is a critical variable in assessing people. Thus, the choices implicit in what individuals do with their time serve as indicators of what kind of person he/she is to others. The allocation of time to activities is emerging as an important variable in both applied and basic research.

A common approach in researching people's use of time is the time-budget or time-diary technique. Subjects are asked to write down what they do during the course of a day or week, and the resulting "diary" can be analyzed. The present study was inspired by an apparent paradox of the time-budget literature. Often in such studies, participants are asked questions about their values as well as how they spend their time. An intriguing result is that there is little correspondence between subjects' value of an activity and the time spent on that activity (cf. Robinson, 1988).

For example, most subjects claim they place little value on television watching, while reporting large amounts of time spent in front of the set. Conversely, parents report that they place a high value on talking with children, but spend precious few minutes during their day doing so. The question arises, therefore, what is meant by value. In economic terms, perhaps these activities are valued precisely because one spends so little time on them, a simple supply and demand function. However, in psychological terms, one would expect individuals to spend time doing activities they value, especially in discretionary time. If much of an individual's time can be spent watching television, it seems likely that this time could have been spent talking with children.

Methodological Concerns

One answer may be that an activity such as television watching can serve many functions simultaneously, such as eating, talking and being entertained. In this sense, television can be viewed as a complementary activity (Golden, Anderson, Umesh and Weeks 1988, Holbrook and Lehmann 1981). Hence, a methodological problem of the time-budget technique rears its head when attempting to interpret information about values from time use data. Which activity is deemed most important or central? And to whom? One method assumes that subject's evaluation of the time is important, and uses what is reported by the subject, other attempts have been made to include several or all activities mentioned by the respondent (Robinson 1977).

These concerns are related to the larger issue of how to infer meaning from time-budget information. Time enjoys a ratio measurement scale, but whether there is a linear correspondence to psychological meaning is not well mapped out. While this property is an aspect of time that makes its' use in research appealing, it also may be misleading. One person's two hours spent watching tv may mean something quite different from anothers. A means of investigating the social meaning of time is called for.

One method of establishing a social meaning for traits and behaviors is in the area of person perception. In this approach, subjects are presented with information about others (controlled by the experimenter) and are asked to make judgements and/or evaluations about them. This technique has been used in a variety of research areas from impression formation to interpersonal attraction (Schneider, Hastorf. and Ellsworth 1979).

Time as Reflecting Values

The rationale behind the present study is the assertion that time spent on activities has some relevance to one's values. Further, in a symbolic interactionist vein, these values should be shared and recognized by others. Thus a social-psychological meaning of time is proposed: How one spends his/her time will reflect values to others. This represents a step toward an understanding of what time use means in the eyes of others and a method of ascertaining such meaning. This line of reasoning has relevance to researchers in the area of time, consumer studies of time use, and in theorizing about the nature of time.

First, utilization of time use studies may lead to an indirect, non-obtrusive method for obtaining information about values. There is implicit relationship between time and values in much research in the area, however a clearer understanding of the relationship between the two concepts is needed. Second, as the allocation of time to activities gains importance in consumer choice, the role of other's -perception of time use becomes an interest. Consumers spend a great deal of time with others and are motivated to behave in socially desirable ways. Analysis of the meanings attached to time use may prove useful in explaining time use behavior and time spent with others. Third, from a management perspective, an elaboration of the meaning of time to consumers would allow for marketing approaches that take into consideration the allocation of time and the social-psychological meanings that are associated with time decisions. As consumers move to making choices in terms of time and activities, this type of analysis should prove fruitful.

Based on previous research dealing with husbands' and wives' use of time (Golden et. al. 1988) three domains were selected for the present study: 1) time spent on childcare 2) time spent on housework and 3) physical fitness. From the literature of perceptions of sex differences (Wallston and O'Leary 1981) and previous time budget research into male and female time use (Golden et. al. 1988) several sex differences are expected. Females should be expected to spend more time doing housework, childcare, and value physical fitness less. Following from the hypothesis that time should have an impact on evaluation by other, those watching more television are predicted to be given less time on housework, childcare, and place less importance to physical fitness.


A person perception paradigm was used to test whether time use information had an effect on several evaluative dimensions. Subjects were students at the University of California, Berkeley who participated as part of a laboratory course in social psychology. Each subject was asked to read a short vignette and respond to a number of questions about the person in the description. The following is an example of the stimulus, with the alternate condition in parentheses.

"Bill W. works full time at the State of California Health Services. He is married and has two school age children. He spends about 5 (15) hours a week watching television and 5 hours a week exercising. He says that what he values doing most is talking with his children."

In this study, 40 female subjects responded to a short vignette about a male, and 40 males read about a female (name and pronouns changed accordingly). The person described in the two conditions was exactly the same except in the amount of time he or she spent watching television. Thus, a 2 by 2 (sex by television time) between-subjects experimental design was utilized. After reading the description of the person, the subjects responded to a series of questions that asked them to rate the person in terms of various behaviors and values. Within these questions were the dependent measures of time spent with children, time spent doing housework, and the importance of physical fitness. These were the variables of interest selected from the work of Robinson (1977, 1988) and Golden et. al. (1988). The subjects- were asked to estimate how many hours a week the described person would spend doing housework, taking with the children, and how much they valued physical fitness.


Separate analyses of variance were carried out for each of the dependent measures. Results can be partitioned into two general analyses, those looking at the effect of the time manipulation, and those looking at sex differences, as shown in the table. Means for housework and talking with children are in hours.

No difference was found for the time manipulation for housework, those described as watching 15 hours of television a week were seen as spending similar amounts of time on housework as those watching 5 hours a week for both males and females ( overall mean for high tv = 13.2, overall mean for low tv = 14.7, F = 2.12 p = n.s.). As expected, the time condition affected subjects' estimations of how much time would be spent with children for both males (mean for high tv = 7.8, mean for low tv = 13.5, F = 10.78, p < .01) and females (mean for high tv = 10.2, mean for low tv = 17A, F = 22.51, p < .001). A somewhat smaller effect is seen in the rating of importance of physical fitness on a scale of 1 (low) to 7 (high); those watching more tv are viewed as placing a lower value on physical fitness by males (mean for high tv = 3.7, mean for low tv = 4.9, F = 5.77, p < .05) and females (mean for high tv = 3.8, mean for low tv = 4.6, F = 3.43, p < .05)

The main effects for sex when averaged over time condition show that sex is still a powerful shaper of evaluations. Females working full-time were expected to spend more time than males in the same situation on housework in both time conditions (overall mean for females = 19.1, overall mean for males = 11.5, F = 12.55, p < .001). A similar pattern emerges for time spent with children, (overall mean for females = 13.6, overall mean for males = 10.0, F = 8.02 p < .01). No sex differences were found in the importance of physical fitness variable (overall mean for females = 4.3, overall mean for males = 4.1, F = 1.53 p = n.s.).



In general, the time manipulation did produce significantly different perceptions and estimations from the subjects. Subjects saw the person who was described as watching more television as spending less time with children, and placing a lower emphasis on physical fitness. These results serve to establish both the method of person perception studies utilizing time information and the hypothesis of the role of time plays in value evaluation. In this study, subjects were only presented with one time condition and sex, future research should look at the influence of within subjects designs in terms of time conditions and perhaps sex. The sex differences are not too surprising, but serve to ground the method by replicating some well documented sex differences (e.g. Spence and Helmreich 1978).

More interesting is the implication that if one spends time on one activity (which may not be highly socially desirable) then one is seen as spending less time on other matters. In this study, subjects read that a person valued "talking with his/her children" most and yet results show that the amount of television watched had a negative influence on this valued activity. This implies that subjects rightly understand the finite aspect of time, but also see time spent on one activity as somehow related to time spent on others. In addition, although the person in each condition exercised the same 5 hours a week, those who watched more tv were seen as valuing physical fitness less. It is this result that shows the influence to allocating time to activities in the minds of others. In other words, if the person really valued physical fitness, he or she would not be spending all that time in front of the tv set (the low tv condition was set at 5 hours, the average reported time in a pretest of similar college students).

What the subjects did makes sense in terms of the information given. They were told to answer the questions based on what little they read about hypothetical people. Outside the controls of the laboratory, people have far more information with which to judge. In addition, those being judged engage in strategic tactics of self-presentation by withholding some information about activities and embellishing accounts of positive behavior. However, a general picture of a person's time habits emerges to those close to him or her, and it is from this information combined with other sources that allows one to make judgements. This social-psychological component is important in terms of establishing the link between time and values. It is not only the mind of the consumer that forges that link, it also exists in the minds of the observers, or referent groups.

The relationship between time and values is not, however, clear-cut. Obviously time use information will be critical in determining socioeconomic variables such as wealth and class. It is not difficult to conclude that a person who spends most of his days on a yacht is of a privileged household. However, because one spends a great deal of time standing in lines does not imply that waiting is a highly valued activity. It may be that time use in discretionary time is the most salient to others in making inferences about behavior and values. Thus, television watching, for most a discretionary activity, picked up the process by which judgements are made. What one does with leisure time provides a rich area of inquiry. Apparently, subtle psychological distinctions can be made with a small amount of time use information. It is this use of time by others that was the focus of this research.


The present study is an attempt to establish the role of time use information in perceptions about individuals. The person perception paradigm employed seems to be an effective and useful technique to gain information in the realm of time and behavior. The possible dependent variables are many, thus the role of theory or link to previous research is important. The issues of the relationship between time and values remain murky, but a step in the direction of understanding has been taken. Time offers a direct and precise variable to manipulate in the lab, while remaining rich in possible meanings to subjects. Future research should strive to identify the role time plays in gender identity, value formation, and consumption decisions.

Focusing on time use information of consumers represents a broad dimension of consumer behavior. Instead of limiting research to choice among products, this approach attempts to understand the context of consumer behavior in terms of a bundle of products associated with the choice of activities The context of choice represents another level of analysis for the researcher, and offers insights into the nature of decisions (Tetlock 1985) and consumption (Hibshoosh and Nicosia 1987). One key component of most decisions is time: the time necessary to make choices and the time allocated to the chosen activity. It is the allocation of time to chosen activities that should be a process of interest to researchers and management in the years to come.


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Jonathan E. Schroeder, University of California, Berkeley


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16 | 1989

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