You've probably heard the perennial question from the backseat: "Are we there yet?" As the family was riding over the river and through the woods, the children were in the back asking: "When do we get to grandmother's house?" Why does it take so long to get somewhere? Why does the return trip seem shorter?
The illusion that the return trip is faster is powerful and commonly experienced. Van de Ven, Rijswijk, and Roy (2011) have recently published a series of studies of this illusion—what they called the return trip effect. First, they conducted a survey to make sure that most people experience the illusion. You can answer the simple survey question yourself: Do you sometimes feel that the return trip is shorter than the initial trip? The return trip effect only works for trips to new places. If you are thinking about a regular trip, like driving to and from work, the illusion disappears.
Because the return trip effect vanishes for frequently traveled routes, Van de Ven and colleagues considered a few possible explanations of the return trip illusion. In considering explanations, we have to realize that we don't accurately judge time. Instead, we judge how long something takes based on a variety of factors. One factor that influences how we make time estimates is the nature of the activities that fill that time (see my earlier post, Talk Dirty to Me, for an example). Van de Ven and colleagues considered that the initial trip may seem longer because it is filled with new sights and experiences. You've never gone there before and everything is new. In contrast, the way back is now known and potentially perceived as faster. To investigate this possibility, Van de Ven and colleagues varied whether people returned by the same route they traveled on the way out. If novelty is the cause, then taking a new route home should make it seem as slow as the outgoing trip. But this didn't work. People judged the return trip as faster no matter which return route they took. The return trip effect doesn't depend on taking the same route both ways.