Yep, the "return trip effect" is a real scientific thing.

By Julie Mazziotta
Updated June 16, 2015
Credit: Getty Images

You ply your kids (and, okay, yourself) with every iPad, book, and cracker imaginable, but it happens every time you hit the road: getting to your destination feels like it takes forever, but the return trip seems to fly by, even though both distances were the same length.

So why does it feel like we enter in some sort of Harry Potter-level time shifter whenever we head home? Turns out, the phenomenon's really a thing. Researchers in Japan have found that the effect may stem from our memories of the journey there.

In their small study, the researchers had 20 men watch movies depicting a person’s perspective as they walked two different routes. Ten of the men saw a version where the walker went out and returned along the same route, after a 10-minute break, while the other half of the group watched the walker go out along one route and return via a different one after the same break.

During each film, the men were asked to report when they thought three minutes had gone by. Then, after they'd watched both movies, they were asked which of the two they'd seen had felt longer. While there was no difference in how well the subjects experienced three minutes going by, there was a distinction in what they thought of the trip length—participants felt that the return trip was shorter when they followed the same route in both directions.

“The return trip effect is not a matter of measuring time itself,” study co-author Ryosuke Ozawa of the Graduate School of Frontier Biosciences at Osaka University told the Los Angeles Times. “Rather, it depends on time judgment based on memory.”

That is, our recollection of the trip to our destination colors how we experience the road back, though Ozawa's not yet sure how. One theory is that we're more familiar with the directions we need to take the second time, so that leg seems like a breeze in comparison.

Here's another: Research conducted by psychologist Niels van de Ven of Tilburg of the University in the Netherlands in 2011 found that the so-called “return trip effect” comes from differences in traveler’s expectations going into it.

“People are often too optimistic about an initial trip after which it [feels] quite long," van de Ven recently told the Los Angeles Times. "When heading back we think, 'It's going to take a long time again,' after which it feels not as bad."

Reverse psychology? Perhaps, but we'll take it if it gets us home that much faster.