Vierordt’s Law and experimenting with time

Karl von Vierordt has a relatively short Wikipedia bio (compared, for instance, to this) for someone who pioneered the measurement of blood pressure, the measurement of lung function and – the activity that would link his name with a “law” for posterity, the experimental study of the time sense. Indeed, he seems to have been one of the first experimental psychologists.


This excellent set of slides gives an overview of Vierordt’s career and a very detailed discussion of the time experiments, their methodology, context, and implications. So what is Vierordt’s Law? As stated by Wearden in the talk:

the proposition that short intervals
of time are judged as longer than they are,
whereas long intervals are judged as
shorter, with an indifference point, where
intervals are judged correctly, somewhere
between the two

In 1868, Vierordt published Der Zeitsinn nach Versuchen
– “The Time Sense According to Experiments.” This was not the first study of time perception, but by had by far the most data. Wearden describes Vierordt’s experimental methodology:

The data collected in Der Zeitsinn come from
experimental studies in which Vierordt himself,
or sometimes his pupil Höring, was the sole
experimental participant
• Höring [Vierordt’s student] not only carried out time perception
studies to qualify for a medical degree, but his
thesis work has the oddity that Höring was the
participant and not the experimenter (who was
• The data were derived from very extensive
experimentation, often involving hundreds of
experimental trials carried out over many days

Two taps (on a glass plate) define a target
time interval and the participant must
make a response so that the time between
the second tap and the response is equal
to the time between the two taps

A very full account of the Vierordt effect (perhaps a better term than “law”) is given in Wearden’s paper linked to above. Wearden has an intriguing conclusion:

A potential conclusion is that the Vierordt effects
shown in different tasks don’t actually have any
common cause, and that different processes are
responsible in the different cases

• Here, unusually, theoretical analysis seems to
suggest that things that look the same aren’t
really the same at all, a kind of theoretical
“disintegration” rather than the usual theoretical
“integration” of different phenomena within the
same theoretical framework

He ends with two points that should give pause to those who see the science of today as inherently superior to the science of the past:

You can see that this 19th. Century work, in spite
of some peculiarities, not only produced reliable
data, but also has posed some problems which
are unsolved (and, it seems, quite difficult to
solve) even today in the light of many recent
advances in our understanding of time
• More generally, Vierordt seems to be a pioneer
of experimental Psychology who is unjustly
neglected….until now


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