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You’ve probably experienced it before:
you go to the grocery store or wherever,
and for some weird reason,
coming back seems to take a lot less time than getting there did.
Weirdly less time.
Suspiciously less time.
What kind of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff is this?!
Well, good news.
You probably weren’t abducted by aliens or anything like that.
And unless you got stuck in traffic or something on the way out,
your route back wasn’t actually shorter.
You’re just experiencing the return trip effect
because your brain isn’t all that
accurate at estimating how long things take.
This feeling that the way back is shorter is so universal
that psychologists have been trying to understand why it happens for decades.
Back in the 1950s,
researchers proposed that it was due to familiarity,
which would kind of make sense.
They figured that on the way out,
you’re actively paying attention to all sorts of new sights,
so you really feel every second as it passes.
But on the way back,
while you might note a few landmarks,
you just aren’t noticing things the same way because you’ve seen it all before.
And because you’re paying less attention,
your ability to estimate time gets a little, well, warped.
There’s evidence that things like attention to the passage of time,
the number of events we experience during a period of time,
and stuff like boredom and impatience
can mess up how you perceive time.
And familiarity could potentially affect any of those.
But… there’s actually not much support
for the idea that familiarity is to blame.
For example, one study found that
as long as participants watching a video
had the sense that they were moving,
just being told that the way back was the way back
was enough to make it feel shorter.
Which is bonkers.
And more studies have found
实际上 在路上时 你对时间的感知并没有发生错误
that you don’t actually perceive the time wrong in the moment.
When participants in a 2015 study were asked
to tell the researchers every time they thought three minutes had passed,
they did equally well when watching videos of an outbound trip,
a return trip, and an alternate route of the same length.
But when reflecting on the experience afterwards,
all of a sudden, they thought the return trip video
was shorter than the other two.
So, you know, hindsight not so 20/20.
This all suggests that the return trip effect
has something to do with the stories we tell ourselves after the fact,
not how we perceive time.
Weird and cool as that is, though,
it doesn’t tell us why we make the error.
The most recent idea, which seems to be gaining traction among psychologists,
is that it happens because of a violation of expectations.
In general, we’re pretty bad at
estimating how long things will take.
Anyone who has ever waited until the last minute to write a paper
or packed desperately 45 minutes before their flight takes off
knows this very well.
So, like most things in our lives,
we think the outbound trip will take less time than it actually does.
And that makes it feel painfully long.
Then, on the return trip,
we adjust our expectations:
it’s gonna take forever and we just got a deal.
But the sheer misery of the outbound trip means
that we overestimate the return trip.
We expect it to be extra painfully long,
and then we end up being pleasantly
surprised by how short it is.
But, of course, that’s just a hypothesis —
so a 2011 study published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
tested it and the familiarity hypothesis head-to-head.
They had 93 college freshmen bike to a forest
for some get-to-know-you bonding games at the beginning of the school year.
The students biked out one way and then
came back either the same way or a new and different
way that took the same amount of time.
The return trip effect showed up
regardless of which way they went back,
so familiarity didn’t make the rides feel shorter.
But the effect was more extreme when the
student thought the outbound trip took longer than they’d expected it to.
In fact, the more off their expectations were at first,
the worse they were at judging how long it took to get back…
Which is exactly what you’d expect if it was expectations,
not familiarity, causing the return effect.
And that fits nicely with the other studies.
Ultimately, it’s more about how we
think about and frame the return trip in our minds
than what’s happening in the moment that matters.
And that also potentially answers another timeless question:
why your daily commute always feels so long.
You know every inch of your route to work all too well,
so you’re super good at predicting how long it will take.
and that means you’re rarely pleasantly surprised.
Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych!
If you like this episode,
you might also like our episode on
whether doorways really make you forget things.
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