Changing Your Reference Point Can Drastically Improve Your Commute

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Don’t settle for “car-maggedon” when you can ditch the traffic and find a better commute. AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

The average commute to work in the US is about half an hour (26.9 minutes to be exact, according to the US Census Bureau), and is getting longer every year. To make matters worse, the majority of commuters — 57% of us — leave home right when traffic is heaviest. It’s likely no surprise that commuting in traffic is not an experience that people find delightful.

What may be surprising, however, is that the commute is rated the most miserable part of the day on average, ranking below even housework. Economists Alois Stutzer and Bruno Frey found that in order to compensate for the blow to one’s subjective well-being as a result of commuting, someone would require a 40% salary increase to offset an hour’s worth of commuting. Of course, people are rarely compensated for their commuting sacrific.

Commuting is no picnic for either drivers or passengers, but it takes its biggest toll on drivers. Despite the fact that driving often feels automatic, it puts a strain on your cognitive resources; to drive safely, it takes a significant supply of constant attention. (And when that attention degrades, like when you divide your focus to talk on the phone — even hands-free — that’s when you get into accidents). The type of effortful attention required by driving is part of what makes it unpleasant, even when you are making the same trip you do ten times a week between work and home. This is all exacerbated by heavy traffic; the attention required to navigate the stop-and-go nature of fluctuating traffic patterns, reacting to unexpected stimuli, only multiplies the misery of commuting.

But if sitting in traffic is so awful, then what can we do about it? Research from the behavioral sciences shows us that everything is relative. And because of this, changing your reference point can be a simple, effective way to improve your commute.

As humans, we understand the world through the subjective lens of our current adapted state, which incorporates our reference-dependent preferences and the fact that we habituate to circumstances over time. So if we have been anchored on a certain something — say, average commute time or density of traffic — we expect that same level to be normal, and experience pleasure with an improvement to that level. So if you are used to commuting 45 minutes each morning, a commute of 20 minutes will feel heavenly. On the flipside, if you are used to a commute of 20 minutes, then a commute of 45 minutes could ruin your day.

There is some interesting research to support this, where researchers have looked at the natural choices people make when moving from one city to another. Uri Simonsohn found what he calls a “contrast effect” where those who were accustomed to long commutes initially chose a longer-than-average commute in their new city. (Remember, this felt “normal” to them because they were used to a long drive in their previous locale.) Similarly, Simonsohn and George Loewenstein found in a different study that people spent more on housing when they moved from a more expensive city to a less expensive city compared to those who were coming from cheaper cities. In both cases, movers fail to adjust for the realities that characterized their destination city, whether they are cost of living or duration of commuting.

This suggests that if you live in a metropolitan city known for its heavy traffic, and then move to a smaller city, driving will feel like a comparative breeze. Indeed, this is exactly how I felt when I moved from Los Angeles (where I grew up) to Durham, North Carolina (where I live now): I couldn’t understand what people were complaining about when they talked about the few cars on the road that they considered “traffic.”

Of course this only works for some time. Eventually, the effect wears off as you become accustomed to the new reference point. Even Simonsohn’s participants who moved from NYC to another city with shorter average commutes adjusted their commute to correspond to that of the new city over time, losing their tolerance to a long commute as they adjusted to the new environment. Indeed, after living in Durham for more than ten years now, I cringe at the thought of the long drive (20 minutes! Maybe even 30!) from Durham to its neighboring city Raleigh, which felt like it was just around the corner when I first moved. Perhaps it’s time for me to start looking for a smaller town to relocate to.

In all seriousness, there are other solutions available if it’s out of the question to change your commute. There are many ways to improve the commute you’re stuck with. You can keep comparatively extra-long daily commutes top of mind (Los Angeles to San Francisco) by sticking a list of them in your car, a salient reminder of your relatively short and sweet commute. Or make sure to spend your commute time better: 45 minutes on the train where you can read a book, for example, is time far better spent than 30 minutes stuck driving in traffic. You can request flexible work hours to avoid commuting in rush hour, or work from home from time to time. The more you can lighten your cognitive strain while commuting, the better off you’ll be. And perhaps someday the worst part of your day will be something truly terrible, like doing the dishes or taking out the trash.

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Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.

Written by

Aline Holzwarth is an applied behavioral scientist, primarily focusing on digital health research and scientifically informed product design. alineholzwarth.com

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