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Yes, Virginia, San Diego is East of Reno

My latest Slate column examines our cognitive biases in maps, routing, and travel.

The north-south imbalance is just one of any number of ways we rearrange objective time and space in our heads. There are the famous examples of geographical distortion, for example, in which people routinely assume that Rome is farther south than Philadelphia or that San Diego is west of Reno (when in both cases the opposite is true). Or take a simple trip into town: Studies have found that people tend to find the inbound trip to be shorter than the outbound trip, while a journey down a street with more intersections will seem to be longer than one with fewer (and not simply because of traffic lights).

Our state of mind on any trip can influence not just our perceptions of time but of geography itself. As Dennis Proffit, et al., write in the wonderfully titled study “Seeing Mountains in Mole Hills,” in Psychological Science, “hills appear steeper when we are fatigued, encumbered by a heavy backpack, out of shape, old and in declining health”—and this is not some vague feeling, but an actual shift in our estimates of degrees of inclination. Transit planners have a rule of thumb that waiting for transit seems to take three times as long as travel itself. And then, looming over everything, is Vierordt’s Law, which, applied to commuting, roughly states: People will mentally lengthen short commutes and shorten long commutes.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, April 1st, 2010 at 5:25 pm and is filed under Etc.. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “Yes, Virginia, San Diego is East of Reno”

  1. Josh R Says:

    I absolutely know that the phenomena of the outbound trip being longer then the inbound. Twice I’ve made a driving trip from my home in MN to near Detroit MI. Both times the trip was two days out, one day back. The actual driving time involved didn’t vary by much, but my willingness to continue driving on the inbound leg made the difference. Outbound I was in unfamiliar territory and after several hours in the car I was more then willing to grab a hotel room rather then press on into the unknown. (particularly as it got dark.) Inbound at the same time mark I was on familiar roads, only a few hours from home, and comfortable with continuing until I reached my destination.

  2. Daniel Simons Says:

    Tom — It seems there is now some controversy over the meaning of the slope-estimation results. At least one series of studies by Frank Durgin and his colleagues suggests that the effects of fatigue and wearing a backpack on slope estimates are just due to the experimental demands. Subjects believe that wearing a backpack should make them judge slopes to be steeper. If you give them some other reason why they’re wearing a backpack, they no longer show the effect (they still overestimate slopes, as always, but don’t show any difference from a no-backpack condition). I blogged about it a couple weeks ago (and gave the citations there): http://theinvisiblegorilla.com/blog/2010/03/22/a-weight-lifted/

  3. Pete Says:

    I had a similar experience showing the difference in perception of drivers and users of pubic transport.

    I used to travel some 30 odd miles by train to work, my work mate drove a similar distance.

    One day when he offered me a lift home we had been discussing how long the relative methods took, I suggested we timed the journey, I knew how long my trip took, door to door. He was convinced the car journey would be quicker.

    I started timing from when we left the office, he ignored the 5 minute walk to the car, I checked the time when we got to the car 12 minutes past the hour, he rounded this to quarter past. When we arrived at my door again, he round from 13 past down to 10 past. Naturally, he was happy with his timings, but he rounded off some 10 minutes (at least) in total by my timings. Strangely enough, he then proudly announced the trip was 10 minutes faster by car.

    He couldn’t see what he’d done was wrong.

    As further evidence, I lived 2 minutes walk from the railway station, as we arrived at the door, the train I would have been on was just arriving. We had left about 5 minutes earlier than I would have usually left the office.

  4. Tony Toews Says:

    To follow up on your headline Norman Wells, NWT, near the Arctic Circle is west of Vancouver, BC. Although you can only get there by ice road in February/March, via the Mackenzie River in June through, maybe, September and airplane year round.

  5. ScottF Says:

    Wait, so the part about people believing going north is “uphill” is true? It’s not an April Fool’s joke?

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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