On Travel

A former professor of mine once exclaimed that he did not like travel. Student reaction was quite negative. The students who liked this professor then felt a need to defend him; interestingly, their defense wasn’t that it is okay to dislike travel, but that he misspoke, that he didn’t really mean that he disliked travel. This is reflective of a larger and unfair stigma against disliking travel. I say unfair since while most people love the idea of travel, traveling itself is much less pleasant for them for a variety of reasons I’ll explore in this post.

People tend to “fake” traits that are socially desirable if the cost of faking is relatively low. Travel encourages this faking more than most characteristics. It’s easy to see why travel is socially desirable. First, it signals activity, and activity is preferable to inactivity. Travelers backpack, hike, climb, and explore. Second, it signals openness and curiosity. The traveler is interested in cultures other than his own. Third, a love of travel indicates a love of novelty. The traveler has eaten exotic foods or seen exotic animals. Fourth, travel perpetuates the feelings of being in an elite in-group, which is nauseatingly manifested in tired conversations about cities that both travelers have visited*: “Wasn’t Prague beautiful?!” “It was!” and then there is the obligatory listing of the mutual places that each of the travelers visited in said city.** This conversation generally will give both participants a lot of pleasure, sometimes even generating a sort of insular arrogance. People who don’t engage in this self-congratulatory ritual—like my former professor—will be greeted with condescension, the result being that these anti-travel individuals are hesitant to express their preferences in public settings.

*This conversation very often occurs between two students who just returned from life and “perspective”-changing study abroad programs.

**Like the exhilarating astronomical clock in Prague! (onlookers of said clock pictured above).

One source of the exaggeration of a love of travel is social pressure, but, there is another source too: erroneously ascribing benefits to travel that are really just benefits to being unencumbered and in a good state of mind. When individuals travel, they are off from school or work and often are with friends and loved ones. I suspect that for a lot of individuals, it is not travel itself that makes them happy; it’s just that travel is correlated with other factors that tend to make people happy.

There surely are benefits to travel too. I, for one, genuinely enjoy trying new foods or “old” foods prepared in different ways: This is arguably* my prime motivation for travel. Some travelers really do get immense pleasure out of seeing particular pieces of art, and traveling for the museums is worth it to them. And others really are adventurous types who just like traveling for the sake of traveling, for the thrill and novelty of it all.

*I’m not quite sure who would argue about it, though.

But, for me, and I’m sure many others, much of travel does not consist of doing those things we like, largely because we often travel with other people who have different preferences than us. Despite my desire to make food the central part of my European travels, I was eating less than a quarter of the time.* Even when my preferences did align with my fellow travelers regarding what to do, they often did not align on how long to do it. Generally, people have an incentive not to be selfish, so frequently two travelers may stay in a museum longer than either prefers because they each think the other isn’t yet ready to leave. Of course, there are also a good deal of “transaction costs” of traveling—going through the airport, waiting on lines, staying in hostels—which, when combined with the preference problem, means that, for most people, there is a significant part of traveling that is unpleasant.

*Admittedly, this is due largely to the limits of the human stomach rather than the differing preferences of my travel mates. But it still exhibits that much of traveling consists of not doing the things you primarily want to do.

This unpleasantness, though, tends to be de-emphasized when individuals recount their travels not only because of social norms, but also due to what is known in psychology as “rosy retrospection,” the idea that individuals rate past events more positively than they rated them at the time the event occurred. When combined with the social norms account, this means that travel becomes very glorified.

This over-glorification is not unique to travel, but it is more prevalent in travel largely because travel is seemingly more conducive to storytelling. People usually travel for several days or weeks and, upon returning, feel compelled to discuss their experiences.* This demand for storytelling, combined with the mechanisms discussed above, results in an overly positive take on travel that is frequently discussed. This leads to two main harms: People like my former professor are ostracized for their preferences, and certain groups of people travel more than they optimally should because of the benefits that flow from discussing their travels afterwards. So, next time you’re about to talk about your travels, really think about what you enjoyed and what you didn’t and please, don’t use the word “perspective”.

*”How was Europe?!” “Pretty good, How was your continued stay in the US?” “Pretty good too.”  “Okay, see you later.” This conversation will never happen.

12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by JLA on April 7, 2010 at 3:58 PM

    I’m not sure how much weight should be given to happiness surveys, but this is a pretty interesting result:



  2. Posted by Aaron on April 7, 2010 at 4:20 PM

    Like this one a lot Josh. One thing I particularly noticed in my “travels” was that some of the traveler’s I met would engage in a sort of “competitive storytelling”. “Competitive storytelling” is one thing I particularly dislike and I do my best to avoid joining in. Travelling increases the probability of a “good story” which for some people is more valuable than the experience itself.

    I also agree with the rosy retrospection. Who is going to say “I really didn’t like my time in ___?” People are rarely completely honest with themselves and others about how these experiences really were.


  3. Posted by doc on April 7, 2010 at 8:43 PM

    Geez, I really thought I loved my vacation in Bermuda last summer. Actually, there wasn’t much travel involved, other than taking a plane and a cab to the resort. Then, my wife and I had had to walk about 100 yards or so to different places to eat tasty food, drink great drinks, sleep a lot, or float a little. So, I guess you are right Josh. It was a great time because we hardly traveled!


  4. Posted by Dan on April 7, 2010 at 11:58 PM

    @Aaron: I really didn’t like my time in Orvieto.

    @Josh: You REALLY like to reference that “insular arrogance” post…


  5. Posted by Kyle on April 8, 2010 at 12:01 AM

    Very interesting. In a sense, I think travel can be an excuse for getting to behave in a manner that would be considered more or less entirely dysfunctional in non-travel society. When you travel, you take a group of people you (hopefully) like and (often) go to a place where you don’t speak the language. This means that you don’t have to talk to anybody you don’t want to for the length of the trip. You can also justify getting irrationally excited about some local food dish and/or local drink. Basically, you have no responsibilities, and you become free to act largely based on personal whim. Like a 5-year-old or a professional athlete. If you did this in your normal place of residence, you would be considered selfish, lazy, and possibly a bit deranged. Getting to do all these things in a really cool place, like Italy, makes it that much better. But I agree that being in a different place is not necessarily in and of itself the point. Enjoyed the post. And, @Dan (is that what you do with the @ signs), come on, Orvieto wasn’t THAT bad.


  6. Posted by Dan on April 8, 2010 at 12:10 AM

    I don’t know, I think so, it was my first time trying to use them.

    and lets be honest, Kyle, you behave like that regardless of whether you are traveling …

    interesting thing about “rosey retrospection” (i didn’t realize this was a generalized phenomenon, i thought it was just a flaw i had in my recollections. ever since i realized that i had this “flaw”, on trips where i am having mediocre time that i realize i will think more highly of later, i concentrate on thinking about how its not as good as i “will” think it is. later, when remembering the trip, i remember this “planted” thought, and it serves to counter this effect. [although, in this case, i guess one can make an argument about whether one ought to want to remember honestly or remember rosily …]


  7. Posted by janechong on April 8, 2010 at 12:26 AM

    Great post.

    A fascinating recurring theme to consider: the degree of self-affirmation and self-congratulation coded in one’s professed love of travel (people! cultures!) in CONTRAST with a lot of the actual shallowness reflected in the practical particulars of the travel under discussion.

    I’m not talking about the difference between fun and work, or hotel-hopping across Europe and doing service work in the developing world…both can absolutely be legitimate uses of your time…but I will make the perhaps less popular argument that both also have equal potential to be pathetic, depending on your mindset and intent going in, the kinds of experiences you emerge with, and, if you so choose, the way you incorporate these experiences into your life… or into random conversation. Unfortunately, this continent-dropping during rando convo is the sort of use that immediately comes to mind because we’ve all seen and heard it so many times: an insincere leveraging of travel experience -on the most basic level, for social capital and affirmation. There are of course, all sorts of messy other purposes to think about, now that study and service abroad have acquired such ubiquity and prominence in higher level education.

    It’s undeniable that there’s pressure to gush about one’s personal cross-continental travels –and, I argue, overstate the immersion you underwent or exaggerate the things you felt, did, or in the case of volunteer work or long-term pleasure travel, contributed –that is, to the “authentic” community of which you may claim to have become a part. I don’t think this sort of broad brush-stroking is always intentional. From what I’ve seen, people just as often turn that “people! cultures! wonderful!” lens inward, and it affects how they remember and talk about their travel experience. Or, however reflective and nuanced the “perspective” they take away…as you suggest, for whatever reason (I can think of several very specific reasons, some detestable and some completely understandable), what they are inclined to/able to share with others amounts to little more than uninformative cooing.

    It would be really interesting and, I think, worthwhile to critically examine these issues when assessing the success and true efficacy of university-sponsored civic engagement programs like DukeEngage and the Princeton Bridge Year.


  8. Posted by Wey on April 8, 2010 at 12:46 AM

    “*”How was Europe?!” “Pretty good, How was your continued stay in the US?” “Pretty good too.” ”Okay, see you later.” This conversation will never happen. ”

    I actually think I had this exact conversation with Tim several times…


  9. Love the blog 🙂 If only one could eat 100 percent of the time during travels abroad. Sigh, biology (anatomy?).


  10. […] There is little in life that is a more consistent source of pleasure than mutual beneficial experience. It explains the joy in reading old yearbook entries (where friends write of inside jokes) and the pleasure of jogging our memories with a friend or lover over a pleasant past mutual experience.** The pleasure of mutual experience is behind the nauseating (to me, but pleasing to many others) back-and-forth over travel experiences. […]


  11. […] Memory is a durable, and this has important implications for Josh’s views on travel. […]


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