The Science behind Return Trip Effect – Why getting to your destination seems longer than your journey back

There is a science behind why getting to your destination seems longer than your journey back.  It is called the Return Trip Effect.  My family and I went up north last week-end.  On our way there, which was about 200 km away, the journey seemed to take a long time.  On our way back, the trip home seemed to go a lot more smoothly and seemed faster despite us having a very active day where we were all tired.  It got me to thinking that this seemed to be a common perception every time we took a long road trip.  So I got curious and looked it up.

Researchers at Tilburg University in the Netherlands 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 the study found:

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.


Why does this happen?  What they found out was because participants felt that the initial trip took longer than they expected, they likely lengthened their expectations for the return trip.  In comparison with this longer than expected duration, the return trip felt short.

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.

So in basic terms, it is all about our expectations.  If the outcome exceeds our expectations, we are pleased and the journey does not seem as long. If our expectations are not met, we become disappointed and our journey is perceived to have taken too long.

So what can you take from this study and apply it to your life?  Should you set high expectations, or low expectations so you are not disappointed in the outcome?

Here are some quotes to start the thinking process.  Do you agree?


“Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and
he will become as he can and should be.”
― Stephen R. CoveyThe 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change


“Today expect something good to happen to you no matter what occurred yesterday. Realize the past no longer holds you captive. It can only continue to hurt you if you hold on to it. Let the past go. A simply abundant world awaits. (January 11)”
― Sarah Ban BreathnachSimple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy


Elita Torres

I have over 20 years experience as a leader, first as a General Manager for several Big Box retailers with over 100 employees, then as a district manager overseeing an average of 23 stores. Currently, I am a Sales Director overseeing 4 Districts. My passion for leadership and personal development has led me to share my journey in a Blog. Find out more on

2 thoughts on “The Science behind Return Trip Effect – Why getting to your destination seems longer than your journey back

  • September 4, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    Great post Elita. Another factor that I think contributes to the return trip effect is familiarity. When we are first embarking toward a destination, there are so many new things to observe and take in that hold our attention. On the return trip, they zoom past as familiar and the time flies by. (I also notice how little I recall from the drive home compared to the drive out to somewhere new!)

    I personally like to set high expectations for an outcome and check my self talk when things don’t go as expected to be fully present for the learning that comes next.

    • September 4, 2015 at 7:33 pm

      Thanks Jenn for the comment. You made an excellent point about familiarity and self talk when things don’t go exactly as planned. Most of our learning happens in the non familiar zone as well. Thanks for sharing.

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