The Clock Is Ticking

The Sound of a Ticking Clock Speeds Up Women’s Attitudes on Reproductive Timing


The “biological clock” serves as a powerful metaphor that reflects the constraints posed by female reproductive biology. The biological clock refers to the progression of time from puberty to menopause, marking the period during which women can conceive children. Findings from two experiments suggest that priming the passage of time through the sound of a ticking clock influenced various aspects of women’s (but not men’s) reproductive timing. Moreover, consistent with recent research from the domain of life history theory, those effects depended on women’s childhood socioeconomic status (SES). The subtle sound of a ticking clock led low (but not high) SES women to reduce the age at which they sought to get married and have their first child (Study 1), as well as the priority they placed on the social status and long-term earning potential of potential romantic partners (Study 2). Findings suggest that early developmental sensitization processes can interact with subtle environmental stimuli to affect reproductive timing during adulthood.

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  1. 1.

    Because previous LHT studies have focused on the role of stress, we considered the possibility that the ticking clock could have made people feel rushed, which could have created some sense of stress. To rule out this explanation for our findings, we collected data from an independent sample (50 women, 26 men) and showed that the ticking clock did not make people feel especially rushed. While they completed a short questionnaire, we subjected them to both the kitchen timer condition and a mild but explicit time-constraint condition (the experimenter asked the participant to complete the questionnaire quickly). We then asked participants to indicate how rushed they felt (1 = not rushed at all, 9 = extremely rushed). Participants did not report feeling rushed in the kitchen timer condition (M = 2.89, SD = 2.24) and, if anything, they felt less rushed than in the time constraint condition (M = 3.71, SD = 2.48; t 74 = −1.50, p = 0.14). Thus, it seems unlikely that the effects we observed were due to participants feeling rushed or stressed.

  2. 2.

    We performed two meta-analyses to assess the overall significance and effect sizes of the ticking clock prime for low SES males across the two studies. The first analyzed low SES men across Study 1 and using the $10 budget results from Study 2. The second analyzed low SES men across Study 1 and Study 2 using the $20 budget. The effect was significant across Study 1 and Study 2’s $10 budget (z = 1.77, p = 0.038), as well as across Study 1 and Study 2’s $20 budget (z = 2.15, p = 0.016). Weighting each study by its degrees of freedom, the studies yielded an effect size across Study 1 and the Study 2 $10 budget of pr 2 = 0.165 and across Study 1 and the Study 2 $20 budget of pr 2 = 0.198.


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JHM would like to thank his advisor, JKM, for his guidance and assistance on this project and manuscript. He would also like to thank his family for their love and support as he continues his education. Finally, he would like to thank his research assistants for their hard work on this project.

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Correspondence to Justin H. Moss.

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Moss, J.H., Maner, J.K. The Clock Is Ticking. Hum Nat 25, 328–341 (2014).

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  • Life History Theory
  • Reproductive timing
  • Mate preferences
  • Sex differences
  • Priming
  • Evolutionary psychology