The Return Trip Effect

Over the weekend, I took the 3 hour trip back home to visit my friends and family at my high school’s homecoming football game. On Sunday when I was returning back to State College, it seemed as if time was flying and I got back here so much quicker than it took to go home the first time. This got me thinking about all the other time’s I’ve traveled some place, and every time, it seems to go quicker on the way home. Why does this happen?

A study was done Ryosuke Ozawa of the Dynamic Brain Network Laboratory at the Graduate School of Frontier Biosciences at Osaka University that tested exactly this question. Ozawa tested 20 healthy men (aged 20-30) on 3 different movies. Movie 1 was walking from point A to B, movie 2 was walking from point B to A and the final movie was walking from C to D. Each movie was approximately the same distance and time. The experimental groups were asked to watch the videos and say when it felt like 3 minutes went by. They were also asked to  take off their watches and to not count. Half the group watched videos 1 and 2(round trip condition), the other half watched 2 and 3 (non round trip condition). At the end, the participants were asked which movie took longer. Ozawa concluded that ” our two methods of time estimation suggest that the return trip effect does not affect the timing mechanism itself, but rather our feeling of time postdictively.”

Another three studies were done by Niels van de Ven, of Tilburg University in the Netherlands also testing the return trip effect. His first study tested the return trip effect of a bus trip which was the field study. Here, 57 females said that the trip on the way home was shorter. Ven examined to see if recognizing different waypoints along the way determined the effect and concluded that recolonization has nothing to do with the passage of time. His first study did conclude that the more the participants thought that the initial trip would have taken longer, the more they felt the return trip took less time.

Ven’s second study was the field experiment that tested a bicycle trip with 93 students and an unknown route. They were randomly assigned into groups of 5-10 people and had to travel on two different routes both equaling the same time and distance. A control group went out first traveling the first route and then the second. At the end of each they estimated  how long each took, saying that they were both roughly 42 minutes. When the experimental group went out doing both at once, they  stated that the route on the way back was the shorter route. This is agreeing with the alternative hypothesis.

The third and final study is the controlled lab experiment and is similar to Ozawa’s experiment. Participants watched a video of someone bicycling from her home to someone else’s and then back home again, each equaling the same distance and time. 139 participants watched the video and were asked how long the initial and the return trip had taken. Ven concluded that the participants agreed with his hypothesis.

All three of Ven’s studies showed the effect of the return trip effect. The effect is not due to familiarity of places, but rather the expectations of the trip.

It is possible that the return trip effect is a cause chance, but it is highly unlikely. It is also possible that an unknown factor is effecting our perception of time to the distance traveled.

7 thoughts on “The Return Trip Effect

  1. Jordan Charles Eisenstat

    I agree with your argument. It is definitely a psychological thing. I think when you are planning a trip, you are typically excited to go to that destination. When people are excited for something, it typically seems like it is taking forever. Like when you go on vacation, you are excited to get to your destination, and it seems like it is taking longer to get there. On the return trip, it always seems to go quicker, because typically people don’t want to leave their vacation spot, because you don’t want to do something, it seems like it is approaching faster. That’s just my experience with the return trip effect

  2. Xiye Li

    I feel the same way about the return trip because every time when I go back to China, the flight seems longer than what I expected since I wish that I can be home quickly. On the contract, every time when I take the flight back to the US, the flight seems to be shorter than what I expect because I want the trip to be longer. So expectations definately involve in this topic but I wonder if there is any scientific study can be further done to prove this question. Why people will have this feel? Does it have to deal with the way our brain works? Is there any factors that influence our way of thinking? The three studies should be further developed.

  3. Josefine Satzke

    I have definitely experienced the return trip effect many many times. I always just figured it seemed shorter on the way home because you recognize some key landmarks instead of on the way there when everything is different and new and you don’t know where you are going. On the way back I can kind of get my bearings better than on the way there. But even on trips to places when I knew the route both there and back the trip back seemed so much shorter. I read this article this when I looked it up in the past and it kind of gave some insight to understand this effect, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2015/06/11/scientists-have-discovered-why-the-return-trip-always-feels-shorter-than-the-trip-there/.

  4. Montana Telman

    Like everyone has mentioned I’ve also felt the return trip effect, but I’m still left wondering why. I’d really like to know the exact conclusions that studies produced as they were in my opinion great studies done. I wonder if it’s just that on the way somewhere you are so excited or feeling some sort of heightened emotions that it takes you longer mentally to get there, but on the way back you’re emotions are more stabilized that it just feels faster because there’s no excitement of reaching a destination.

  5. Shannon G Mcclain

    Like the two replies above, I definitely have felt these effects when I am traveling back from certain places. However, I think it varies. Sometimes the trip may seem shorter, other times it seems longer or exactly the length it should be. I think this has to do with other third variables. However, it is difficult to determine what they could be. Perhaps boredom could make the trip feel longer, or if you fall asleep, the trip seems shorter. When I looked up articles on this topic, so many of the search results referenced Niels van de Ven and even more referenced Ozawa’s study. This shows that people are taking his study seriously, however, more should be done to further prove his conclusions and find other answers such as the roles third variables play.

  6. Giana Shan Yu Han

    I have definitely experienced the return trip effect; in fact I experience it every day when I walk back from class. However, I never thought to connect it to science. Your blog really made me think about the topic, and the fact that all those experiments rejected the null hypothesis that people perceived the trips in the same way implies that something is happening. I would really like to find out why exactly this happens. Is there a scientific mechanism for this effect? This is such a common experience, and I think it really shows how there is science in everyday life that we don’t even think about.

  7. John Zabinski

    I always feel the same way when traveling home from somewhere but I never thought that it would have been a tested phenomena! Its interesting that it did agree with his hypothesis but that he does not have a certain explanation as to why. I hope in the coming years this will be tested again and a definite answer will be found about it because I am sure all of us have noticed this occurring at some point!

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