Why does going somewhere always seem to take more time than coming back again?

As any traveler knows, coming home always seems to be faster than going somewhere in the first place. But this strange fact of life is actually a well-studied psychological phenomenon. So then, what's behind the mysterious return trip effect?

Researchers at Tilburg University in the Netherlands recently published their findings, in which they compared various previous data to figure out just what's going on with the return trip effect. Here's what they have to say:

Three studies confirm the existence of the return trip effect: The return trip often seems shorter than the initial trip, even though the distance traveled and the actual time spent traveling are identical. A pretest shows that people indeed experience a return trip effect regularly, and the effect was found on a bus trip (Study 1), a bicycle trip (Study 2), and when participants watched a video of someone else traveling (Study 3). The return trip effect also existed when another, equidistant route was taken on the return trip, showing that it is not familiarity with the route that causes this effect. Rather, it seems that a violation of expectations causes this effect.

The return trip effect is seriously strong - in the bicycle study, people thought their return trip was 17% shorter than the trip out, and in the video watching study it rose all the way to 22%. Of course, since the effect still held strong even when people took alternate routes of the same length, the key to this can't be newfound familiarity with the route. The researchers posit that it's all about shifting expectations, and here's how they explain it:

Participants felt that the initial trip took longer than they had expected. In response, they likely lengthened their expectations for the return trip. In comparison with this longer expected duration, the return trip felt short. The greater the participants' expectations were violated on the initial trip, the more they experienced the return trip effect (Studies 1 and 2). In Study 3, where participants' expectations for the duration of the initial trip were increased via a manipulation, the return trip effect disappeared.

The researchers also suggest this is why the return trip effect disappears for journeys we regularly take, such as daily work commutes. That's because we take these trips often enough and regularly enough that we gain a much more accurate expectation of how long the trip takes, and so the return trip effect diminishes over time.

Original paper via NCBI ROFL. Image by epSos.De on Flickr.