Imagine yourself on a car ride to your campsite for an exciting weekend of fun activities with friends. While on the road, you check the time to see how much longer it’ll take for your group to arrive which gradually becomes a recurring habit accompanied with impatience and anxiety. You just want to start the series of games already! You finally make it to your campsite. You enjoy a wonderful weekend of playing and mingling with friends, and now it’s finally time to go home. Before you know it, you tell your friends,
“Wait… we’re back already?”
This mysterious phenomenon is called the “return trip effect.” As humans, we feel this sensation when we travel to a destination to and back with the condition that the distance and time traveled back are relatively equal (1). Researchers have yet to unravel the mysteries of this sensation, but they have deduced down to several theories supporting it.
Social psychologist Niels van de Ven and his collaborators developed two theories that explore the return trip effect: familiarity and expectation (1). Perhaps if we become familiar with the surroundings, returning back through the same route would seem to take less time. Maybe we overestimate the length of how long the initial trip took, making us adjust our expectations accordingly to believe the return trip should take just as long. Psychologists tested three experiments to determine which factor contributed to the return trip effect.
Researchers had 69 people take bus trips to and back from a theme park. All 69 volunteers declared that they felt the effect, but many of them stated that they expected the return trip to take longer because the initial trip took longer than anticipated.
In a second study, researchers asked 93 bikers about how long the initial trip and the return trip took for them (1). The estimated time for the initial trip was 44 minutes while the return trip back was 37 minutes, yet the trip to and back actually took approximately 35 minutes each. Again, the bikers who expected the initial trip to be longer said the return trip felt shorter.
For their final study, researchers had 139 test participants watch someone ride their bike to and back from a friend’s house (1). The trip took 7 minutes, and some test participants had clips of the biker taking a different route on the way back. Once more, the ongoing trend of expectations was prevalent in this experiment regardless of which route the biker took. Participants stated that the trip to the friend’s house took 9 minutes while the trip back felt like 7 minutes. Interestingly, however, the few participants who were informed that the initial trip would take longer did not experience the return trip effect.
We seem to constantly make these expectations because of the brain’s incapability to accurately measure time (2). For instance, place yourself in your most boring class in school. As you look at the clock, you internally scream at how slow time is passing. Now put yourself in a position where you’re having fun. Boy, does time seem to fly! Our brain tends to remember time periods being longer when we pay more attention to time itself (2). This reasoning explains why those participants who were informed about the initial trip taking longer did not experience the phenomenon; their perception of time violated with the brain’s expectations.
“So, Kenny, why doesn’t it feel shorter on the way back from school to my house?”
Great observation, readers! To answer that question, we have to fall back to the theory of familiarity. Most of the time, we all take the same route to and back from a destination we frequently go to. We become familiar with a route we frequently take, so our perception of time becomes more accurate which shape our expectations more uniformly with how long it actually takes to go back (2). Therefore, we cannot discredit familiarity as not being a factor in the return trip effect.
Basically, just like the hearing theories, each of these theories support why we experience the return trip effect. Perhaps there are other factors that contribute to this phenomenon, but researchers have yet to discover them.
1). Jaffe, Eric. “Why the Trip Back Always Feels Shorter.” CityLab. The Atlantic Monthly Group, n.d. Web. 3 June 2018. <https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2015/06/why-the-trip-back-always-feels-shorter/395714/>
2). Swanson, Ana. “The science behind why the return-trip always feels shorter than the trip there.” WashingtonPost. Washington Post Company, n.d. Web. 3 June 2018. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/06/11/scientists-have-discovered-why-the-return-trip-always-feels-shorter-than-the-trip-there/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.86fc98db4c79>