Driving home the point

Posted on December 16, 2011


Dateline: 5 September 2011 // Posted by: NicHeller12
Source: National Public Radio

Story: “Why The Trip Home Seems To Go By Faster”

Summary: Psychologist Niels van de Ven reports on a study of his which concerns people’s common perception that returning home from a destination always seems to take a shorter time than the original trip towards the destination took. He argued that the currently conventional explanation is that an individual recognizes landmarks on the way home and can therefore better estimate the amount of time the return journey will take. However, that doesn’t account for the fact that this perception is reported just as often for airplane journeys which inherently must lack these types of landmarks.

Van de Ven conducted an experiment attempting to test the conventional explanation. He sent a sample of bikers to a fair, travelling along the same route, and arranged for half the bikers to return using the route they took for the outward journey, and for the remaining bikers to return via a different but equally long road. Both groups experienced the sensation that the return journey felt to pass by faster, which van de Ven says must call for another explanation.

His theory is that an optimistic outlook for the first journey results in disappointment at the actual length, which causes a pessimism for the journey home. Correspondingly, due to this pessimism, the traveller expects the homeward journey to take longer than it actually does, meaning that it ends up passing by faster than expected.

Why is this PseudoNews? While the article presents psychologist van de Ven’s experiment, it is easy to deduce that his experiment did not do anything to yield his own theory conclusion or to support his optimism/pessimism explanation for the  human perception of journey times. He used a simple experiment to explain why the common justification for this experience is wrong, and then simply decided to offer his own new explanation without any evidence or reason why this new justification is justified. This is an example of an argument from ignorance.

By presenting this news report from as coming from a psychologist who published an article about this in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, it appears to be newsworthy and scientific. The information regarding the experiment’s details are vague, but even if they were more concrete, the nature of the study would not be one to yield the conclusion given. Van de Ven’s conclusion in fact, is just presented as a speculative justification for an illusion that occurs often, but not what that actually has a lot of pertinence in the field of psychology. The same information could easily be presented by anyone theorizing about this illusion.

What features of pseudoscience are on show? The most obvious feature of pseudoscience found in this particular news article is vagueness in measurement. The article describes one of van de Ven’s experiments but it doesn’t explain how he concluded from that measurement that all of the participants experienced the same sensation of the illusion that he presents as the problem. He leaves the educated reader asking, did the participants know what was being tested? Did they fill out a survey about how they felt while riding their bikes? Did van de Ven simply ask them as a group after the “experiment” if they experienced the sensation?

A second feature of pseudoscience at play is the tolerance of anecdotal evidence. After conducting an experiment that he claims proves another explanation wrong, van de Ven simply uses his own personal experience, and those of a few of his colleagues, to provide his new one. So the “scientific study” that provides an explanation for this so-called “psychological phenomenon” is really just a result of a couple of people’s personal feelings on the subject.

The moral of the story: While sometimes people experience the sensation that the trip home from somewhere takes a shorter amount of time, not all people experience this. There are many possible explanations for it, none of which — as of now — have any more scientific support than another.