April 26, 2012

WEIRD SCIENCE: Are we there yet?

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Everyone can relate to that feeling of hopelessness that accompanies a long car trip: your parents blasting Alanis Morissette and talking to you about your future as the hours, and your sanity, melt away. Your back stiffens, the walls close in, and the car fills with the nausea-inducing stench of entrapment. Regardless of how long the trip actually takes, something miraculous always happens on the ride home: it feels shorter.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so. A recent study published on Springerlink examines the causes of this so-called “return trip effect”, the almost universal sense that the return trip is shorter than the initial one. The researchers conducted three experiments, each of which aimed to distinguish between two potential hypotheses regarding the cause of the return trip effect. The first theory (the familiarity hypothesis) suggests that recognition of the return leg of a trip causes people to recall it taking less time, whereas the novelty of the initial leg has the converse effect. The second (the expectations hypothesis) proposes that people generally underestimate the time a trip will take and thus perceive the initial leg as longer than predicted. This, in turn, causes a distorted expectation for a long return trip, which consequently feels shorter than envisioned.

The first experiment involved 69 subjects on a real bus ride with initial and return trips of equal length. The riders were afterward asked to indicate how long the return trip felt as compared to the initial trip, how well they recognized certain landmarks during the journey, and how the length of the initial trip compared to expectations. Ultimately, research showed that the longer the initial trip seemed, the shorter the return trip was perceived. This suggests that the familiarity of the route is not the cause of the return trip effect and instead support the expectations hypothesis.

The second study followed several students on a bike ride, some of whom returned via a different route than they took initially. Like in the first investigation, the researchers found a significant positive correlation supporting the expectations hypothesis: the more participants thought that the initial trip took longer than expected, the shorter they felt the return trip took. Furthermore, the results from this experiment showed that those who took a different route back did not perceive a longer return trip than those who took the same route back, refuting the familiarity prediction.

The final study was conducted in a lab, using a video of a bike ride in place of an actual trip.  Participants were asked to guess the duration of the initial and return trips. The researchers varied the order and timing of the questions, as well as the familiarity of the return biking routes, to measure a variety of factors. Largely, the results supported those found in the previous studies. One noteworthy addition, however, came from a variation of the experiment in which the subject was made to expect a long initial trip. The trial accordingly found that ‘no return trip effect existed for these participants, further supporting the expectations hypothesis.

In light of these findings, the researchers concluded that the perceived shorter return trip is likely due to inaccurate predictions that the initial trip will be brief. So, if you know you’re going to be stuck in the car for four hours listening to Ms. Morissette, do what I do: lower your expectations.

Abby Fessler is a student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at agf36@cornell.edu. The Missing Link: Weird Science appears on appears on Fridays.

Original Author: Abby Fessler

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