Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

How Long Will It Take to Get Home?

Why does the trip home feel shorter?

Why do journeys home seem shorter?
At the University of Texas, I have two offices: one in my department and one that I use in my role as the director of the masters program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations.  As a result, I often have to walk from one side of campus to the other for meetings.  It is important to do a good job of estimating the amount of time it will take to walk from one place to the other to ensure that I am not late for an appointment, but also that I do not waste time sitting around waiting for a meeting to start.

 The walk is familiar enough now, that I know how long it takes, but when it first started, I had to guess.  What factors affect these guesses about how long it takes to go from one location to another?

 An interesting paper by Priya Raghubir, Vicki Morwitz, and Amitav Chakravarti in the April, 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology looked at how familiarity with the destination affects your judgments of how long a trip will take. 

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 They started by asking whether people thought it would take longer to go from their home to a location than to go from that location to their home.  They asked students in a classroom either to estimate how long it would take to walk from their home to a classroom or from that classroom back home.  The estimates were about 4 minutes longer to go from home to the classroom than to go home from the classroom.

 Why would judgments about home be shorter?

 The authors reason that people consider their home to be a bigger location than the destination.  That is, you are familiar with your home and surrounding area, and so when going from home to another place, it will take you longer to feel like you have really left your home area.  Similarly, when you are going from somewhere else to home, you will feel like you are almost there earlier in the trip.

To test this possibility, they performed another study in which people made judgments about a journey between two cities that were several hours' drive away.  One city was their home city.  The participants were given elaborate driving directions like those you would get from Mapquest or Google Maps.  Of interest, people had to judge when they felt that the journey was under way and when they thought the journey was halfway complete. 

 When people were thinking about driving from their home city to another location, they felt like they had to drive further before the journey was really under way or when they were halfway there than when they were driving from another city to their home.  That is, the familiarity of the locations near home made it feel like the early stages of the journey were long.

 This work suggests one reason why you often feel like the travel required to go somewhere on a vacation seems to take much longer than the travel required to get back home. 

 This phenomenon may also affect your beliefs about the amount of time that it will take to get a project done.  If you are doing a project where the first steps are familiar, you may choose to start early, because you know how much work is required to get started.  If you are doing a project where the ending parts of the project are familiar, though, you may feel confident starting later, because the project will feel like it is nearly completed faster.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.


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