Published November 4, 2023 | Version v1
Journal article Open

The effects of increased mental workload of air traffic controllers on time perception: Behavioral and physiological evidence

  • 1. Panteion Panepistemio Koinonikon kai Politikon Epistemon


Research has shown that timing is modulated by mental workload, making duration judgments a measure of cognitive demand, alongside subjective assessments, and physiological measurements. Yet, it is unclear whether such findings can be extended in less controlled setups. By employing air traffic controllers in a real aviation environment, we tested whether tasks with different levels of cognitive load can affect their timing behavior. Participants completed temporal production, verbal estimation, and passage of time judgments, while actively engaging in real flight control sessions. Subjective assessments of task demands, as well as physiological responses (cardiac and electrodermal activity) were also measured. Accuracy of the produced intervals was measured at two distinct phases of the flight (during low-load cruising vs. high-load landing) and under two different task load manipulations (controlling one vs. two helicopters and speaking in native vs. non-native language). Analysis of interval production accuracy showed that during the high-load landing phase significant overproductions were made, compared to the low-load cruising phase, and landing two helicopters led to greater overproductions compared to landing only one. The duration of the two-helicopter sessions was significantly overestimated compared to the single-helicopter ones, and the passage of time was felt significantly faster. Subjective assessments of workload were positively correlated with the temporal estimations and passage of time judgments, and skin responses were positively correlated with the produced intervals. Overall, our results are consistent with past research, suggesting that mental workload modulates time perception in complex, real-world environments, thus making timing behavior a reliable index of the workload changes.


Analysis code and research materials are available at Data were analyzed using R, version 4.0.0 (R Core Team, 2020). The study was not pre-registered.



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ChronoPilot – Modulating Human Subjective Time Experience 964464
European Commission


  • Balta, E., Psarrakis, A., & Vatakis, A. (2024). The effects of increased mental workload of air traffic controllers on time perception: Behavioral and physiological evidence. Applied Ergonomics, 115, 104162.