You’ve probably experienced this before: when returning from a round trip, like driving to Las Vegas versus driving back home from Las Vegas for example, the trip home felt shorter. What is the scientific basis for this though?
Some hypotheses include the power of expectation. Especially for vacations, the feeling of anticipation of finally reaching your destination can make the experience of travelling there feel longer because you can’t wait to get there. Additionally, if the trip to the location took longer than expected, we may readjust our expectations of the length of the trip so that the trip back feels shorter and thus more pleasant. (1)
Another hypothesis is how humans take time to learn and become more familiar with new sights. When confronted with new stimuli or experiences, especially risky or life-threatening situations, time feels warped to be slower to allow more brain processing time, which also makes the long-term memory feel longer. Consequently, this contributes to why elder people often remark that time goes faster the more they age because being older often means less new experiences, so there is less need for the brain to interpret time more slowly to pay more attention to solving a problem. (2)
In the case of the “return trip effect”, after viewing the landmarks on the road while getting to the destination, such as the rest stops or road signs, it is easier to recognize these points on the way back. Having less sense of confusion and being more certain of one’s surroundings can make the time feel faster. This is similar to how many activities can feel unconsciously natural after learning the process. For example, when you first learn to ride a bike, you carefully strategize your speed and balance, but after a while of practicing, your mind is more free to wander off rather than focus on the mechanics of riding the bike. Similarly, the trip back from somewhere feels faster because you processed the journey of going to and back from the location. However, the “return trip effect” is still prominent even if a different route is taken on the return route, as studied in a 2011 study. (3)
This “return trip effect” is most notably noticed after reflecting on how long a trip to an unfamiliar location took; people don’t usually feel that the trip is shorter while still on the trip. This explains why the “return trip effect” is usually associated with vacations and not daily commutes to work or school because by then, the sights are so familiar that humans can more accurately measure the time spent going to and back from a location. Otherwise, when travelling to and back from a less commonly visited location, people often feel like the return trip is several minutes faster.
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