According to the calendar, the 2016 election was three years, 11 months, and 26 days ago. Based on people’s subjective impressions, though, it can feel like either yesterday or a lifetime ago. Sometimes it feels like both.
As Americans await information about the future on Election Night, their minds will probably also be on the past. Like the Olympics and other infrequently recurring high-profile events, each presidential election prompts us to remember where we were—and who we were—on Election Nights past.
In human memories, there is a distinction to draw between chronological time (how long ago something happened) and psychological time (how long ago something feels like it happened), Anne Wilson, a psychology professor at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University, told me. These two methods of recording time don’t necessarily align neatly, which is why 2016 can simultaneously be four years ago and feel like a bygone era.
The relationship between chronological and psychological time can be different for different people. Wilson mentioned two possible factors at play. “One is ‘affective experience’—pleasant times really do seem to fly by faster than unpleasant ones,” she said. “And the other is ‘perceived change’—when a past point in time seems further away, the ‘before time’ often seems more different.” She wondered if this might produce a partisan gap: “If Democrats perceive [Trump’s presidency] as stretching on forever, they may also be inclined to recall a lot more ways things have changed. In contrast, Republicans may perceive the past four years as passing more quickly and, relatedly, may perceive relative stability.”