How Anticipation Warps Our Sense of Time


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?

This article first appeared in

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