After noticing the ways people interact dynamically with their environments during travel, researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the University of Toronto decided to explore the phenomenon.
Professor Sam Maglio of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and Professor Evan Polman of the UW School of Business conducted a study which found that the way brains perceive distance and the closeness of destinations during travel may be different than people traditionally thought.
Maglio said he and Polman met at New York University, and both related to the everyday experience of moving around their environments.
The researchers were primarily interested in how far commuters thought certain places were from where they were initially located, and also took into account whether the commuters were moving toward or away from the location in question, Maglio said.
The team conducted field studies and asked regular people walking or waiting around about places they were either going toward or away from, Polman said. The research team chose subway stations in Toronto as an ideal location for choosing subjects to study the way people perceive distance during travel, he said.
The researchers found that people moving towards a certain destination thought the destination was closer to them than if they were moving away, Polman said.
“Subjectively, we saw big differences: If I anticipate getting closer to something in the future, it feels closer to me right now,” Maglio said. “We were a bit taken aback by how drastic the effect was.”
The effect was not limited to distortions in the perception of distance, but altered people’s perception of time as well, Maglio said.
For instance, if a person was walking back toward a Starbucks where they had just received a mixed-up order, they thought the time they received their order was more recent than it actually was, Maglio said.
The study also found that the way people perceived the outcomes of events at certain locations was altered by whether or not they were heading toward or away from the location, Polman said.
This effect went so far as to even alter people’s perception of random events — such as the probability of winning the lottery, Polman said. People who were heading toward a lottery drawing thought there was a higher chance that someone would win that lottery compared to people who were heading away from such a destination, he said.
Maglio and Polman said they did not run into any major complications over the course of the study.
A paper detailing the methods and results of the study will soon be published in the journal, Psychological Science.
The professors were intrigued by the results of the study and said they are going to continue looking into this phenomenon in the future.
Polman said they are currently carrying out follow-up studies.
“The next step will be to look at how these feelings of closeness shape actual behavior,” Maglio said.