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.”
However long ago 2016 seems, it can serve as a signpost that helps us mark the passing of time. “A lot of our memories don't have much of a time-tag or date linked to them at all, just a vague sense of distance,” Wilson said. “Repeating milestones like elections are exceptions—we know the actual calendar time of these events pretty well.”
Wilson and others have studied the importance of “temporal landmarks,” which can be anything that “stands out and makes a day feel special and different from the days that roll by without our noticing,” as Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, put it to me. These occasional jolts, she said, help us sort memories and process durations of time, “just [like] the way we use physical landmarks to organize space and our memories of places.”
Someone who reaches life expectancy in the U.S.—currently a bit under 79 years—lives through only 19 or 20 presidential elections, but temporal landmarks can take the form of humbler occasions; some more frequent landmarks might be your birthday or a holiday. Even the start of a new week can prod people to reevaluate their behaviors and resolve to make a “fresh start,” as Milkman has found in her research.
Like some stressful, nationwide quadrennial birthday, elections not only encourage us to think about where we’ve been and where we’re headed personally, but may also spur similar, collective thinking about the state of the country. “To the extent that an election can represent a turning point or fresh start, there’s some hope that enough Americans might feel freed from how the past has weighed them down and imagine a less divisive path ahead,” Wilson said.
In some years, this personal and national stock-taking can be nostalgic, thrilling, and fun, but this year, that sense of excitement seems difficult to tap into, given the chaos and anxiety that have defined this presidential race and this year. Here’s hoping the time soon comes when today feels like 1,000 years ago.