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Travel Like A Behavioral Scientist

Zarak Khan
Behavioral Innovation Director, Maritz

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first in our new (Do It) Like A Behavioral Scientist series. It’s pretty simple: You want to do stuff, and you want to know if behavioral science can help you do it “better.” We have a behavioral scientist tell you some ways to maybe, possibly, potentially do so, yes. It’s a little different than our normal fare, but we’re confident you will enjoy. So please do so, like a behavioral scientist would.


When people find out I’m a behavioral scientist, the first question they usually ask is “Are you studying me right now?” And the honest answer is “Well, sorta.” Not that I’m necessarily running an experiment, but once you learn to look at life through a behavioral lens, you can’t take those glasses off. So since I can’t help it anyway, I convinced PeopleScience to let me start a series on observations of behavioral science creeping in to everyday life and how I (and now you!) can use it to make life better. This is the first.

Once you learn to look at life through a behavioral lens, you can’t take those glasses off.

I love travel. Since my first trip abroad in college, I've been to six continents (I’m coming for you, Antarctica!) and spent most of the past four years on the move – working from new cities, exploring new places and visiting old friends. But I'm also always looking for ways to use unconscious decision-making (i.e. behavioral science) to make my travel more enjoyable, meaningful and memorable.

 Here are a handful of tips, tricks and observations from my travel journal – mostly related to longer, international trips, but certainly with application to any travel.

Create peak moments

These are what make the trip live on, and get better, in your memory. This could be a fancy dinner with friends, taking a cooking class with a local chef, or spending a day out sailing on a boat. Where possible, I try to create peak moments in a variety of settings, so I may spend two days just lounging on the beach but then go on a trek in the mountains. This creates more memorable moments and for me, makes the trip feel much longer and richer in my memory. (Editor’s note: Much more about the peak end rule here.)

Minimize uncomfortable frictions

Daniel Kahneman once joked that Richard Thaler’s best quality is his laziness, that it forces him to only work on the most interesting problems and to always search for new ideas. When I travel, I take one part of that and mix it with one part of the EAST framework from the Behavioral Insights Team (short version: make the behavior you want Easy). This translates, for me, into identifying and eliminating certain frictions.

One friction point I like to avoid is how to get where you're going after arriving at your destination. If navigating public transit in a foreign language while toting around all your luggage is your thing (and for some folks it is!), then your adventure is about to start. In most cases, I would rather get settled in and then explore, so I'll use a rideshare app, where I don't have to be totally competent in the language or keep too close of an eye on the map. (Learning the transit system is for when I want to feel like a local.)

Another application is tracking and sharing expenses. I love traveling with friends, but I hate tracking expenses. You have an amazing time together and then have to parse out who paid for which museum ticket or metro pass? I hate it. Instead, I prefer Dan Ariely’s approach of having a rotation of one person paying. You either get to feel generous and treat your friends, or you get treated by your generous friends. We tested* this with a group of 14 in Barcelona for a week and found that, compared to our spreadsheets, the rotating single payer led to only a $14 difference at the end. I would happily pay $14 to avoid the pain of splitting bills. Try convincing a European waiter to accept six different credit cards and see how that goes for you. *(Editor’s note: This is not a scientifically sound test with just 14 people and no control group. It’s anecdotal, so Zarak has offered to pay for all of my meals the next time I travel. For science.)

Nonetheless, sometimes you are on a budget – or you have a keen sense of fairness – and you need to track who is paying for what. In those instances, I'll use an app like Splitwise and make it do the math for me. You avoid ending up with a big ledger and spending hours working with a spreadsheet to figure out what's fair. Then you’re just one Venmo away from squaring up.

Introduce productive friction

I was drawn to the phrase “labor leads to love” as soon as I saw it in Michael Norton’s article on the IKEA effect – and to the concept of effort and attention leading to value since the first time I read The Little Prince. The research essentially found that the effort you put into a task can increase how much you value the results. (Editor’s note: See here and here.) Travel is not only about having things easy. You can have a really meaningful experience if you work at it. The trick is to find the right balance for yourself and your companions. This is where a guided adventure tour can hit the sweet spot. You're maybe going to a remote place you wouldn't be able to by yourself, it might be physically taxing, but it can be more rewarding.

Optimize newness

Plan for “optimal newness” by striking the right balance of planning and spontaneity. If you’re boarding the plane and looking for a good read before takeoff, check out this article on Raymond Loewy from The Atlantic. Loewy developed a theory called MAYA – Most Advanced Yet Acceptable – which posits that people like novelty, just not too much all at once. You need a good dash of the familiar.

I'll plan out most of my lodging, a few meals and a couple experiences like museums or tours. These are all things where I know my preferences and want some control. Then I’ll find a few novel experiences or locations to add to the list. Finally, I build in some flex time. It's no fun to feel like you're chained to an itinerary or that you’re just doing the same things in a new place. Plans change: You might meet someone you want to spend more time with, you might really enjoy your time in a city and want to stay an extra day or you might want a day to just relax. Having a bit of flexibility can give you the autonomy you need to make decisions on the fly and hit that optimal level of novelty.

Spend on experiences, not things

This comes from the research of Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton. All of the principles they explore in their book Happy Money are relevant to travel, but this one stands out for me. When I come home from a trip, I've got a lot of great photos and memories. I typically don't have many souvenirs, or if I do, they are specifically chosen to remind me of a particular experience. Bonus points here for sharing those experiences with people whose company you enjoy! (Editor’s note: More on how and why experiences are so powerful here and here.)

Understand context

OK, this isn’t necessarily a behavioral principle, but you can’t effectively do behavioral science without it. Context is everything. Plus, It’s a lot of fun to dive into cutural, historical, geographical and other context when traveling. Why are the buildings built this way? Why are the roads set up in this array? How has this neighborhood changed over time? Who lives here now and what does that mean if you're looking for an "authentic" experience? Asking and answering these types of questions can lead to some interesting conversations and are the best way to broaden your own perspective.


Context isn’t necessarily a behavioral principle, but you can’t effectively do behavioral science without it.

That’s my list.

Oh, you want a bonus one? Fine: Clean your room! No, really. Before you leave, clean your house, or at least your bedroom. Put fresh sheets on the bed, do your laundry, clean out old trash. When you get back, you’re giving yourself a fresh start to reinvent your life in ways big or small that incorporate the changes you’ve made while traveling. Plus it’s just nice to take a shower and fall into a clean bed after a week in the jungle.

I hope you think about this on your next adventure and send me a postcard … one with pictures of your unexpected experiences with friends who pick up the tab. 

Zarak Khan
Behavioral Innovation Director, Maritz


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