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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 determine that you need to leave by 7:20am to get to school by 7:50am.  As planned, you 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.

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 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 as the bell rings, you wonder why you got to school so late.

The First Day of Senior Year

The real reason 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 school 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 in nonroutine trials participants were more likely to perceive changes in the task whereas in the routine trials of the participants were less likely to perceive changes in the task.  This is due to the fact that more attention was allocated to the non-routine than the routine task.  The researchers concluded that the differences in perceived changes caused the 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.

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 memory cause biases in predicting duration of future tasks.  This is why at the start of your freshman year, your route to school is unfamiliar so it feels longer which causes you to overestimate how long it will take to get there. By senior year, your route to school is familiar so it feels shorter which causes you to underestimate how long it will take to get there. This effect is similar to the planning fallacy.

Just because you are the passenger in a car or watching someone complete a routine task that you are safe from the well-travelled road effect. In a study, 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 determined that there is no difference between the actors and observers’ ability to estimate the time it took to complete a task. Based on these findings, they concluded that one’s ability to estimate the duration of a task is dependent on factors such as familiarity or memory.  This study indicates that both actors and observers are affected by the well-travelled road effect.

So if you want to avoid being early and having to wait in the parking lot or being late and having to sprint to class make sure to receive proper feedback on the actual duration of a task.  Or you can just use your GPS or other navigation device so you do 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.

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