Trip Effects

There’s a reason the trip home from a vacation often seems shorter than the trip out, a new study shows.

Some trips involve weirder effects than others.

The explanation is expectation – our intuitions tend to tell us that the outbound journey will be shorter than it actually is. Then, once we’ve experienced for ourselves how much longer the flight or drive actually was, we tend to overestimate the length of the trip home.

These guesses we make don’t seem to have much to do with numerical time estimates -they’re more about our intuition: even if we know a drive will take eight hours, for instance, we don’t necessarily have a clear intuitive sense of how long the time “eight hours” will feel subjectively.

To test these ideas, the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review reports, a team led by Niels van de Ven at Tilburg University in the Netherlands gathered 350 volunteers. Some took a bus trip, some took a bike ride, and some watched a video of a person taking a bike ride.

The team found that a significant number of people experienced the “return trip effect,” and that this effect was correlated with people’s expectations about the trip:

When the duration estimates were compared, respondents thought that the return journey on average went by 22 percent faster than the outward journey. The return trip effect was largest for participants who reported that the initial trip felt disappointingly long. Further, when one group of participants was told that the upcoming trip would seem long, the return trip effect disappeared.

In other words, the effect seems to be caused by a two-part violation of expectations: 1) people are surprised that the outward trip is longer than they expected, and 2) they’re surprised that the return trip feels shorter than the outward one did.

To make sure it wasn’t just the familiarity of the return route that caused the effect, the researchers switched up the course:

The return trip effect also existed when another, equidistant route was taken on the return trip, showing that it is not familiarity with the route that causes this effect. Rather, it seems that a violation of expectations causes this effect.

This tells us something interesting about the way our expectations affect our perceptions of time – our intuition about how long something actually takes seems to be relative to how long we expect it to feel. Which might be why, even though I was warned that Titanic was more than three hours long, my teenage self was convinced it lasted in excess of twelve.

If this is true for our other senses (because time is a sense, even if it’s not one of “the five”) it might be in a patient’s best interest for a doctor to warn, “Now, this is going to hurt a lot,” even if it won’t be all that bad. The lie that a procedure isn’t going to hurt would only seem to increase our perception of the pain.

So, as you head out on your late-summer road trip, just remember to tell yourself, “This is going to take forever.” The time will fly by.

Oh, and by the way, if you were hoping for a post about psychedelic drugs…I’m working on one.

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