Why Does It Take Longer to Go There Than to Come Back?

Anticipation and the return trip effect.

Posted May 25, 2020

We’ve all had the experience of going on a road trip and feeling like we’re never going to get to our destination. And yet, the return trip home seems so much shorter. If you took the same roads and encountered similar traffic conditions, then the time should be about the same. But with the return trip effect, the journey home feels shorter than the outward trip.

The return trip effect has to do with the subjective experience of time. At the biological level, we have a number of internal clocks that are relatively precise. Our hearts beat to a steady rhythm, and our bodies go through daily cycles. And yet at the psychological level, our perception of time is imprecise and greatly influenced by our mood. We’ve all had situations where time seemingly stood still and others when it just flew by. But our ability to judge the actual passage of time is quite limited.

Psychologists have long been interested in the subjective experience of time in general and in the return trip effect in particular. Several explanations for the effect have been offered as well, each with some evidence in support. In a recent article in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, University of Miami psychologist Zoey Chen and colleagues offer a novel explanation for the return trip effect, which they test in a series of experiments.

One explanation for the return trip effect involves familiarity. The idea is that the subjective perception of time slows down during unfamiliar experiences. As a result, the outbound journey feels longer than the return trip. However, research shows that the return trip effect occurs even with familiar journeys such as your daily commute.

An alternative explanation is that return trip effect results from a violation of expectations. People often underestimate how long it will take to do something. When they go on an unfamiliar trip, they find the journey takes longer than expected. But on the return trip, they now know how long it will take, so there’s no violation of expectations. Again, the problem is that the return trip effect still occurs with familiar trips. You know how long your commute takes, but still the trip to work seems longer than the trip home.

Chen and colleagues propose a novel explanation for the return trip effect which they call the anticipation account. The researchers start with the observation that the two legs of the journey typically involve different levels of anticipation. You are certainly more excited about going on your vacation at the beach than you are about your return to your humdrum life afterward. And even during your morning commute, you’re usually thinking ahead to all the things you have to do when you get there.

The researchers also point out that there are cases where the return trip effect works in reverse. Imagine you’re at the supermarket when you get an emergency call from a family member. Your trip back home will certainly feel longer than usual.

According to the researchers, anticipation heightens arousal, raising attention and causing us to be more alert. Arousal also produces an apparent time elongation. If you’ve ever been in a serious automobile accident or other highly dangerous situation, you no doubt had the experience of time slowing down.

Recall that the return trip effect is but one instance of the larger phenomenon of the subjective perception of time. So it isn’t necessary for experimental participants to actually go on a journey. Rather, a virtual trip there and back will do just as well to elicit the return trip effect.

In the key experiment that Chen and colleagues performed, participants responded to a series of questions online. They were then told that they were about to leave the current web site to go to another site to watch a short video clip before returning to the survey. Before the video started, a blank screen displaying a spinning circle appeared for 15 seconds. When the video ended, the same spinning circle appeared for another 15 seconds, after which the survey resumed. At the end of the experiment, the participants were asked to estimate how long it had taken the video to load (the outbound trip) and how long it took to return to the survey.

To manipulate anticipation, the participants were given different expectations about the video they were about to watch. Half of the participants were told that the video they were about watch was very funny and that people generally enjoyed it. (In fact, it was a Saturday Night Live sketch.) The other half were told that the video was boring and that most people disliked it. (This time, it was a clip on how to do accounts receivable in QuickBooks.)

If the return trip effect is due to anticipation during the outbound journey, then it should show up in the funny video condition but not in the boring video condition. Essentially, this is what the researchers found. In both conditions, the outbound trip was estimated as longer than the return trip. However, the difference was quite small in the boring video condition but quite large in the funny video condition.

Another interesting finding was that the participants who watched the funny video were quite accurate in their estimation of the duration of the outbound trip. In all other cases, they underestimated the time span. This suggests that when we are in a heightened state of arousal, as for example when we’re anticipating our arrival at our destination, our perception of the passage of time is rather accurate. But when we’re not aroused, we perceive time as passing faster than it actually does.

Other experiments reported in this article, including one in which participants made actual physical trips to other locations, yielded similar results. Overall, they provide strong support for the anticipation account, which posits that our arousal at looking forward to our arrival at our destination causes time to appear to slow down. This, in turn, results in the return trip effect.

The work of Chen and colleagues on the return trip effect opens ample opportunities for further research, and I’m really looking forward to reading more about it. But I know it’s going to feel like an awfully long wait.

Facebook image: Vera Petrunina/Shutterstock

References

Chen, Z., Hamilton, R., & Rucker, D. D. (2020). Are we there yet? An anticipation account of the return trip effect. Social Psychology and Personality Science. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/1948550620916054