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New York / Heidelberg, 25 August 2011

Getting back from a trip ‘ahead of time’

New study finds our expectations of a lengthy initial trip make the return trip seem shorter

After returning from holiday, it’s likely you felt that the journey home by plane, car or train went much quicker than the outward journey, even though in fact both distances and journey are usually the same. So why the difference? According to a new study by Niels van de Ven and his colleagues it seems that many people find that, when taking a trip, the way back seems shorter. Their findings, published online in Springer’s Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, suggest that this effect is caused by the different expectations we have, rather than being more familiar with the route on a return journey.
“People often underestimate how long the outward journey takes and this is therefore experienced as long,” says Niels van de Ven from Tilburg University in the Netherlands. “Based on that feeling, the traveller expects the return journey to be long as well, and this then turns out to be shorter than expected.” An overoptimistic prior estimation of the journey time thus leads to the illusion of the return journey being shorter.
This conclusion was based on three short studies where 350 people either took a trip by bus, by bicycle or watched a video of a person taking a bicycle ride. 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. Ironically, telling participants that the upcoming trip was going to be very long led them to experience the trip as taking less time.
Up until now, a popular explanation for the return journey feeling shorter was that it was better known and so more predictable than the outward journey. However in their study, the researchers demonstrated that this explanation is unlikely. According to co-author Michael Roy from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, USA: “The ‘return trip effect’ also existed when respondents took a different, but equidistant, return route. You do not need to recognize a route to experience the effect.”
Ultimately, the researchers hope to be able to explain more than just this return trip effect. The authors conclude: “These findings on the ‘return trip effect’ can help us make new predictions on how people experience the duration of tasks, even those unrelated to travelling.”
Van de Ven N, van Rijswijk L and Roy MM (2011) The return trip effect: Why the return trip often seems to take less time. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. DOI 10.3758/s13423-011-0150-5
The full-text article is available to journalists on request.

More information about Psychonomic Bulletin & Review: 

Abstract of the study: