Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

How anticipation warps our sense of time

Here's why that trip to Disneyland—or to the dentist—seems to take ages, but the return trip feels much faster.

Published: Jan 4, 2021 09:35:42 AM IST
Updated: Jan 4, 2021 09:46:21 AM IST

How anticipation warps our sense of timeImage: Shutterstock

Earlier this year, Derek Rucker and his family visited Disneyland. Their hotel was a quick walk from the happiest place on Earth—a trip that took the same amount of time whether they were arriving or leaving. But that’s not how it felt.

“When we were walking to the park, I thought, wow, it’s taking a long time to get there,” Rucker recalls. “When it was time to go home, I remember turning to my wife and saying, ‘Wow, our hotel is really close.’”

Many of us have likely experienced the logic-defying sense of an outbound trip seemingly taking much longer than the same trip in reverse. (This writer vividly recalls the car ride to the SATs—arguably the opposite of Disneyland—stretching on forever, while the trip home went by in a snap.)

The feeling is so common, in fact, that psychologists created a name for it: the return trip effect, or RTE. But they didn’t know exactly what caused it, and they were curious. After all, the perception of time is an important element of our social environment, and influences behavior in ways big and small. Will you find time for that workout or doctor’s appointment? It depends, in part, on how long you imagine it will take.

In 2011 a group of researchers proposed one idea: perhaps the RTE is caused by greater familiarity with our homes as compared to our destinations. Because we know our house and neighborhood so well, “home” seems to take up a greater geographical area in our minds. As a result, it takes a long time to feel that we are away from home and that a trip is well underway.

Yet, we sometimes experience the RTE even when both the point of origin and the destination are familiar. So something else must be going on, reasoned Rucker and his collaborators—Zoey Chen of the University of Miami and Ryan Hamilton of Emory University.

The something else? Anticipation. In a new paper, the researchers show that the return trip effect is strongest when people have a powerful sense of anticipation about their destination—whether that anticipation is positive or negative: Disneyland or the SATs.

Testing the Anticipation Hypothesis
In an initial study, Rucker and his coauthors created a simple survey that recruited 117 online participants and asked them to recall a recent short trip from home.

Participants estimated how long it took to reach their destination and how long it took to return home. Participants also rated how excited they felt about the destination.

Results showed that participants, on average, estimated their outbound trip took 10 percent longer than their return trip. That suggested people experience a modest return trip effect much of time. Importantly however, this discrepancy increased with excitement about the destination: the greater the excitement, the researchers found, the greater the RTE.

The (Virtual) Return Trip Effect
Some aspects of the first study made it difficult for the researchers to be certain that anticipation was causing a RTE: maybe it really did take longer for participants to arrive at their destination than to return home.

So the researchers found a way to hold the length of both legs of the “trip” constant. In a second study, participants waited to arrive at a virtual destination—a web page.

Of course, waiting for a web page to load is different from in-person travel, but Rucker expected to see the same forces at work. “The return trip effect isn’t really about physical distance. It should be generalized to other situations—any kind of experience that involves waiting for time to pass,” he says.

The researchers randomly assigned 195 participants to one of two conditions. A “high-anticipation group” was told they would be watching a funny, widely liked video, which ended up being a Saturday Night Live sketch. A “low-anticipation group” was told they’d be seeing a boring, generally disliked video, which ended up being about accounting software.

Both groups saw 15 seconds of an animated spinning wheel meant to simulate a video loading (the virtual “outbound” trip), followed by their video. After watching the video, another spinning wheel appeared for 15 seconds (the virtual “inbound” trip), followed by a survey.

Participants were asked to estimate how long it took for both the video and the survey to load. They also indicated how much they expected to like the video—a measure of anticipation.

Not surprisingly, participants who expected to see a funny video rated their anticipation higher than those expecting a boring video. What’s more important, the researchers saw a stronger RTE in the high-anticipation group than the low-anticipation group. The high-anticipation group estimated the “outbound” trip to take an average of 14.81 seconds and the “inbound” trip to take just 10.18 seconds. The difference was smaller in the low-anticipation group: an estimated 12.36 seconds on the outbound journey and 10.46 seconds on the return trip.

Valence or Anticipation?
But the study left the researchers with a question: What if the feeling of positive excitement participants felt while waiting for the funny video to load explained the result? In other words, was the return trip effect related to valence—the emotional tone of the experience—or anticipation?

So they designed an experiment that evoked a sense of negative anticipation. The study was similar to the previous one, except that all participants saw the same video—an art film—but were lead to have different expectations. Everyone was told that the video was disliked by others; half were then told the video was boring (low anticipation), and the rest were told it was odd (high anticipation).

Once again, the high-anticipation group thought the loading time was longer before than after the video—even though they were expecting to dislike the video. They estimated a load time of 19.96 seconds before the video and 9.68 seconds after it. The low-anticipation group estimated a loading time of 14.45 seconds before the video and 12.85 seconds after it.

Good or Bad, Anticipation Is Key
For the final experiment, the researchers returned to their original setup, asking 410 online participants to estimate how long an actual trip to and from an event had taken. But this time, participants were randomly assigned to recall one of four kinds of events: a positive and highly anticipated event; a positive but not very anticipated event; a negative and highly anticipated event; and a negative but not very anticipated event.

All participants were then asked, “Do you feel it took longer to get to your destination or to return home?” They rated their answers on a scale from one to seven, with seven indicating a greater return trip effect.

The results again suggested that regardless of whether the event is positive or negative, anticipation magnifies the return trip effect. Participants in both the negative and positive high-anticipation groups exhibited a greater RTE than their low-anticipation counterparts.

About Time
The research pins down the role that anticipation plays in explaining a long-observed but somewhat-mysterious phenomenon. More broadly, it offers new insights into how we experience time, reinforcing just how malleable and contextualized our perception of it is.

Given how important time is to busy consumers—whether we’re standing in a checkout queue, waiting for an app to load, or waiting for a package delivery—companies might benefit from thinking about how their consumers experience time and how they prefer to think about time. (For instance, Kellogg operations professor Robert Bray has found that customers prefer to get delivery updates later as opposed to earlier in the delivery process.)

Rucker hopes more research will investigate this topic. “It’s a call for researchers to pay greater attention to how consumers understand or perceive the passage of time in their environment,” he says.

Coauthor Chen shares a similar view. “We often think of time as objective and fixed—60 seconds is, and should feel, longer than 59 seconds. But our work suggests that psychological states and environmental cues change how consumers perceive the passage of time. More research is needed to unpack and identify other relevant variables that influence time perception.”

Until then, you can plan experiencing long outbound trips—whether to the lake house or the dentist office—and speedy journeys home.

[This article has been republished, with permission, from Kellogg Insight, the faculty research & ideas magazine of Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University]