Travel Woes: Expectations and the Return-Trip Effect

In Research News, NPR studied the phenomenon of a return trip’s brevity in contrast to […]

Ethan Richardson / 9.6.11

In Research News, NPR studied the phenomenon of a return trip’s brevity in contrast to that of the going out. Apparently retired astronauts and psychologists are debating its reasons and finding its roots in, yes, our expectations. Based on the article, it’s our insuperable expectations that lend the “Are we there yet?” to every vacation or road trip. Because we have this hunger to arrive there, ideas for what our days will look like there, and we expect that when we are there that things will be different, the getting there is impossibly long. On the reverse, when these expectations faceplant, as only they can when under such duress, the foundering optimism is crushed, leaving the trip home to surprisingly not seem so long. What is that all about? That the there we are hoping for is a longing longer-spent, that the return is always quicker once those hopes are crushed?

Niels van de Ven, a psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, says the conventional wisdom is the trip back seems shorter because it’s more familiar, so people recognize landmarks. “And that might help to increase the feeling of speed, of how fast you travel,” he says.

But that didn’t seem right to him. “When I take, for example, an airplane, I also have this feeling, and I don’t recognize anything on my way, of course. When I look out of the window, I don’t see something I recognize,” van de Ven says.

So he decided to do some experiments exploring that feeling. One involved people who were planning to ride their bikes to a fair. He asked each person to ride the same route to the fair. Then he split the participants into two groups. He asked the riders in one group to come home by the exact same route. For the other group, he mapped out a different route, but one that was the exact same length. If the familiarity explanation was right, only the group travelling home by the same route should feel that the trip home was shorter.

When he did the experiment, he found the route didn’t matter. Both groups had the same feeling that the return trip was shorter.

Here’s what van de Ven thinks is going on: “Often we see that people are too optimistic when they start to travel,” he says. So when they finish the outbound trip, they feel like it took longer than they expected. That feeling of pessimism carries over to when they’re ready to return home. “So you start the return journey, and you think, ‘Wow, this is going to take a long time.'”

But just as initial optimism made the trip out feel longer than expected, this pessimism starting back makes the trip home feel shorter.

“It’s really all about your expectations — what you think coming in,” says Michael Roy, a psychologist at Elizabethtown College and a co-author with van de Ven on the article describing this effect in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

Roy doubts all psychologists will agree with their conclusion that expectation is an important cause of the trip home effect. “But … we’re not saying this is the only cause. There are definitely likely other causes as well,” he says.

In fact, there are psychologists who agree with astronaut Bean that the trip home seems shorter because there’s less pressure to reach the intended target on time.

“When you have a destination you want to be there on time,” wrote Richard A. Block, a psychologist at Montana State University, in an email. “But when you go back home (return trip) it does not matter that much. Thus, when you are going there, your attention is more focused on the target and not distracted.” In this case, being distracted makes the trip seem shorter.

This psychological research has implications for the getting there of any human project (family relationships, dating relationships, money, vocational purpose, children, the list goes on…): inevitably our expectations will lead to disappointment, and that disappointment will bring us back to a surprising realism. And back to the well.

Is there an answer to this kind of fated disappointment? Will vacations always be beyond our dreams/expectations? What lesson do we take? It seems that there’s something to be said about the surrender of dreams here, to let the road (and yourself) go where you go. This is death a la Jackson Browne:

They told me I was going to have to work for a living
But all I want to do is ride
I don’t care where we’re going from here
Honey, you decide


subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *