Humans tend to perceptually distort (dilate/shrink) the duration of brief stimuli presented in a sequence when discriminating the duration of a second stimulus (Comparison) from the duration of a first stimulus (Standard). This type of distortion, termed "Time order error"(TOE), is an important window into the determinants of subjective perception. We hypothesized that stimulus durations would be optimally processed, suppressing subjective distortions in serial perception, if the events to be compared fell within the boundaries of rhythmic attentive sampling (4-8 Hz, theta band). We used a two-interval forced choice (2IFC) experimental design, and in three separate experiments tested different Standard durations: 120- ms, corresponding to an 8.33 Hz rhythmic attentive window; 160 ms, corresponding to a 6.25 Hz window; and 200 ms, for a 5 Hz window. We found that TOE, as measured by the Constant Error metric, is sizeable for a 120-ms Standard, is reduced for a 160-ms Standard, and statistically disappears for 200-ms Standard events, confirming our hypothesis. For 120- and 160-ms Standard events, to reduce TOEs it was necessary to increase the interval between the Standard and the Comparison event from sub-second (400, 800 ms) to suprasecond (1600, 2000 ms) lags, suggesting that the orienting of attention in time waiting for the Comparison event to onset may work as a back-up strategy to optimize its encoding. Our results highlight the flexible use of two different attentive strategies to optimize subjective time perception.
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