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The Real Reason Why Freshmen are Always Early and Seniors are Always Late to School

The First Day of Freshman Year

Imagine it is the morning before the first day of your freshman year of high school. You have only visited your new school once before for orientation so the drive there is unfamiliar. After getting dressed and eating your breakfast, you inform your Mom that you need to leave by 7:20am to get to school by 7:50am. As planned, you and your Mom get in the car at 7:20am and drive to school. The drive seems to take forever but somehow you manage to get to school ten minutes earlier than you had originally planned. Embarrassed by how early you are, you ask your Mom if she can wait in the parking lot until it is socially acceptable to arrive at school. She agrees and finds a spot to park. You recline your seat all the way hoping that no one will see you through the car window. While you wait, you wonder why you got to school so early.

The First Day of Senior Year

Fast forward to the morning before the first day of your senior year of high school. Now that you are a senior, you drive yourself to school. The route to school is no longer new and unfamiliar. Sometimes you wonder if you could drive there with your eyes closed. After getting dressed and eating breakfast, you determine that you need to leave by 7:35am to get to school by 7:50am. The drive seems to fly by but somehow you manage to pull in to the parking lot at 7:55 am. With only five minutes to spare instead of ten minutes, you sprint from the parking lot to class. As you slide into your seat just before the bell rings, you wonder why you got to school so late.

One reason that you find yourself waiting in the parking lot on the first day of freshman year and racing to class on the first day of senior year is because of the well-travelled road effect. The well-travelled road effect makes traveling unfamiliar routes seem longer and traveling familiar routes seem shorter.  The drive to school on the first day of your freshman year felt longer because it was unfamiliar while the drive to school on the first day of your senior year felt shorter because it was familiar.  This difference in perceived duration is caused by how your attention is allocated (Avni-Babad & Ritov, 2003).

Driving a familiar route is similar to performing a routine task. It is automatic and requires minimal attentional resources.  In contrast, driving an unfamiliar route is similar to performing a non-routine or novel task.  It is not automatic and requires more attentional resources.  Anvni-Babad and Ritov (2003) tested how differences in attention affects our perception of time for routine and non-routine tasks.  They found that participants were more likely to perceive changes in non-routine tasks than in routine tasks because more attention was needed to complete these unfamiliar tasks.  Differences in perceived changes resulted in differences in estimating the duration of the task.  More perceived changes caused the participants to overestimate the duration of the task whereas fewer perceived changes caused the participants to underestimate the duration of the task.  This means that you probably noticed when you stopped at a traffic light, yielded to another car, changed lanes, or turned onto a different road more often on the drive to school on your first day of freshman year than your first day of senior year.

The well-travelled road effect not only affects your perception of time during ongoing tasks but also your ability to accurately estimate how long future tasks will take.  When predicting how long a task will take, people tend to recall the perceived duration instead of the actual duration of a task (Roy & Christenfeld, 2007).  These biases in our memory cause biases in our ability to predict the duration of future tasks.  This means that you will likely be early on your second day of freshman year too.  Although you remember arriving too early the day before, you also remember the trip lasting longer than it actually did.  As a result, you will once again find yourself waiting in the parking lot with your seat reclined hoping that no one will see you through the car window.  In order to prevent this from happening, you should base your predictions for future tasks on the actual duration of the task and not your perceived duration of the task.  This effect is similar to the planning fallacy.

No Escaping the Well-Travelled Road Effect

You may be wondering if the well-travelled road effect is still applicable to this scenario given that your mom drove you to school on the first day of your freshman year and you drove yourself to school on your first day of your senior year.  The answer is yes! The well-travelled road effect is still applicable even when you are not the one driving the car or completing the routine task.  Roy, Christenfeld, and Jones (2013) examined the difference between actors and observers’ ability to estimate the time it took to complete a task. The results showed that there was no difference between the actors and observers’ ability to estimate the time it took to complete a task. Based on these findings, they conclude that one’s ability to estimate the duration of a task is dependent on factors such as familiarity and memory.  How familiar or unfamiliar you are with a task or whether you remember the perceived or actual duration of the task will ultimately determine your ability to correctly estimate the time it took to complete a task.  This means that even when you are in the passenger seat of and not behind the wheel you can still fall victim to the well-travelled road effect.

If you want to avoid being early and having to wait in the parking lot or being late and having to sprint to class just before the bell rings make sure to base your travel time on the actual duration of the drive and not on your perceived duration of the drive.  Using a GPS or a different navigation device, even when you know the route by heart, can help you not fall victim to the well-travelled road effect.

 

References

Avni-Babad, D., & Ritov, I. (2003). Routine and the perception of time. Journal of Experimental Psychology,132(4), 543-550. doi:https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-3445.132.4.543

Roy, M. M., & Christenfeld, N. J. S. (2007). Bias in memory predicts bias in estimation of future task duration. Memory & Cognition35(3), 557–564. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.3758/BF03193294

Roy, M. M., Mitten, S. T., & Christenfeld, N. J. S. (2008). Correcting memory improves accuracy of predicted task duration. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied14(3), 266–275. https://doi-org.colby.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/1076-898X.14.3.266

 

  1. December 2nd, 2019 at 16:17 | #1

    Hi Elizabeth! I thought your introduction was awesome and very applicable to a lot of college students. As you explained your bias, I appreciated how you compared driving to school (as a senior) as a routine task that’s more automatic than the task of driving to school as a freshman. We talked in class about how tasks (like driving a new route) are more controlled at first because they’re unfamiliar, so we have to devote more attentional resources to completing the task. As we become more accustomed to the task (like driving the same route for 4 years), the task becomes more automatized and we don’t have to think about it as much. You can liken this to reading, too. When we’re young, we’re just recognizing the features of letters that make up words, which make up sentences. Now, as college students, reading sentences is an automatic walk in the park!

  2. December 4th, 2019 at 21:21 | #2

    Your title caught my attention right away! It made me chuckle to myself because of how relevant it is. The examples you carried throughout your post made it very easy to follow. I thought a lot about metacognition while reading your post. I recognized metacognition as a large underlying factor in the Well-Travelled Road Effect. The Well-Traveled Road Effect also ties many of the topics we have learned throughout this course together, including attention and automatic and controlled processes. Although automatic processes are relevant in many day to day activities, I was caught thinking about the connection to remembering directions on your drive to school. As I spoke about in my own blog post about The Google Effect, Googling things is becoming an automatic process. Instead of remembering every detail of information, increasingly, individuals are referring to their transactive memory which is automatically telling them to, just Google it.

  3. December 16th, 2019 at 16:36 | #3

    I was attracted by your title too, nice choice! Your use of visuals was also fun and connected to the content well. The phenomenon of well-travelled road effect definitely happens to everyone. I moved to a new dorm this semester, so on the first day, I got up super early and headed to my class 10 minutes ahead of time. As time went by, I realized that it actually only took me couple minutes to get there, so I left my dorm later. At the end of this semester, I would literally leave my dorm just 3 minutes before the class started. In your post, it is said that this effect would cause bias in predicting the duration of future tasks, so I wonder if it could be connected with our poor ability of metacognition to some extent as well. We are generally bad at evaluating our performance, so maybe we are also bad at estimating how long does it take for us to complete a task?

  4. Varun Boopathi
    December 16th, 2019 at 19:28 | #4

    This blog post was very informative and gave a lot of relatable examples! Even though I myself have experienced this effect, I had no idea that there was a specific name for it! The example you started with about traveling to school as a freshman vs. as a senior was easy to relate too and very clearly explained the Well-Travelled Road effect. I found the analysis of how going to school becomes an automatic process extremely interesting. What starts off as a controlled process that requires a lot of cognitive resources quickly becomes something that can be done easily – and it is strange to think about how operating a car can be an automatic process. This effect happens to me at Colby – where I have to search for my classrooms at the beginning of the semester, but am then able to walk there without thinking about it after just a few classes!

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