Mental Mishaps

Errors in perceiving, remembering, and thinking.

Are We There Yet?

Over the river and through the woods.

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.

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Then the researchers turned to a second possibility—people may have incorrect estimates of how long the initial trip will take. In essence, people may reliably underestimate how long it will take to get someplace the first time they go there. We often have an erroneous idea about our trip: This shouldn't take too long. It seems like forever because the trip is taking a lot longer than you think it should take. On the way back, you know better. Now you have a more accurate judgment of how long the trip will take.

Van de Ven and colleagues manipulated how long people thought the trip would take in a very sneaky fashion. They didn't directly tell people how long but instead gave them someone else's description of the trip: "Phew, that took a lot longer than I expected." This worked. People no longer thought the return trip was shorter. The cause of the return trip illusion is that we underestimate how long the trip should take the first time. It almost always takes longer than we think it should. I regularly underestimate how long things will take—not just trips, but work related tasks as well.

This leads to some potentially good advice for dealing with the kids in the backseat asking repetitively: "Are we there yet?" Don't try to make them feel better by saying: "Almost there," or "Not much longer." These responses will give them an expectation of a short time period for the trip. Instead, give your children the expectation that this is going to be a long trip. We still have a long way to go before we get there. It is over the river and through the woods and a long time until we get to grandmother's house.

Ira E. Hyman, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University.

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