Travel Inspiration

How to Hack Your Brain to Create Core Travel Memories

We live in a world of infinite information and opportunity. For many, travel is no longer a lavish treat for the senses.

Maybe diving into sparkling Mediterranean waters isn’t within your bi-annual holiday budget, but globalisation has provided a feast of feasible and delectable experiences at a fraction of the cost for the travel-hungry. From budget to deluxe, we’re talkin’ relaxation, adventure, culinary, medicinal, ecological,spiritual, volunteer, and many more. The online world of influence via social media and other dopamine-drivers can lead us to believe that a particular trip is the right place for our hard-earned resources and precious paid holiday-leave; but how do we really know?

The burgeoning field of behavioural psychology can’t solve all our post-holiday blues, but it can provide some insight to help us make better decisions and avoid disappointment. Amidst the paradox of choice, behavioural psychology can help us understand little-known phenomena called bias and heuristics, and how to tap into our true desires outside the algorithm. 

Our brains are amazing — our very own super-computer with 24/7 access (and no subscription fee). If our brains were the hardware, biases and heuristics would form critical parts of the software. Brain biases are bugs that impede logical processing and rational decision-making. Heuristics are the short-cuts we automatically right-click on every time we make quick decisions (without reading all the info), showing up unconsciouslyas both bugs and features! Bias and heuristics are constantly running inthe background of our operating system, and they are peskily ellusive for our impressionable selves to recognise. We can, however, bring more awareness to these effects by understanding how and where they show up within common errors in judgement, which can leave us feeling dissatisfied.

Have you ever been on a holiday somewhere and left feeling like something was missing? Or meticulously planned a two-week vacay like it was your part-time job, only to leave feeling slightly underwhelmed? Bias and heuristics likely played a role in this dissatisfaction.

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi

Availability heuristic

Availability heuristic defines our tendency to make decisions based on the most readily available information (i.e. right-click shortcut) with heightened emotions recalled first. While this software was a key safety feature for our ancestors, the rapid and massive amounts of information we access today can bug-out our decision-making processes because we still default to heightened emotions first. With constant access to a digital world intentionally designed to provoke vivid emotions, our system’s capacity for logical processing is frequently overloaded and leads to decisions based on inaccurate or unrealistic scenarios.

As an Australian, I can assure you that I have never been bitten on the behind by a snake sleeping inside the toilet bowl, nor have I heard of a factual recount of this ever happening. Sure, I’ve occasionally seen friendly frogs grinning at me starkly against the white porcelain dunny, but never a snake. Contrary to the Tiktok wildlife (horror) show, the rates of snake bites and related deaths Down Under are orders of magnitude lower than other countries that are also home to many snake mates. Nonetheless, many foreigners avoid visiting Australia because their most available heuristic is a fearful emotion.


Social Facilitation Effect

Social Facilitation Effect is one of the most rigorously studied forms of bias ever; many studies show the opinions of those in our social environment have a great influence over our decisions. Perhaps this feels intuitive, but bear with me because an additional layer of bias is hiding here. While we may be aware of the influence of our pals on our brains (e.g. new favourite bands or foods), we have a near total-failure to recognise this bias — even when we know it exists.Studies show that even when individuals are made explicitly aware of social facilitation, the effect is still unrecognisable. Meaning, we may recognise new beliefs or life decisions since entering a new friendship circle; but if plans go awry or we have a lingering feeling of dissatisfaction, we almost never recognise the true cause.

While travelling in Peru, I hiked along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu — an experience I had planned months in advance. During the hike, it’s customary for your travel company to pre-arrange a porteador (porter)to carry your gear for you during the four-day trek. Despite their critical role in a safe and unforgettable trail experience, labour rights for porters aren’t always upheld. After the trek, it’s customary to meet with the guides and porters who helped make the journey possible to give thanks, say farewell,and exchange a monetary token of appreciation. Learning of these customs before the trip, I decided I wanted to give most of my Peruvian sol (currency) to the porters; but when the time came to do the exchange, I did the opposite.

After watching what everyone else did, I followed suit by giving our guides the majority and porters significantly less, and it felt right too. Why? The powers of bias justified my decision and even made me think my original stance was the opposite. Ten years later, I can still access a feeling of regret tied to this memory, but only recently have I learned how and where bias bugged-out my decision-making. Importantly, it’s not that I simply ‘did whateveryone else was doing', but the Social Facilitation Effect convinced me it was what I wanted and blinded me to the truth of why I did it.

Photo by PNW Production

Making better decisions 

Spontaneous travel decisions can be fun and unforgettable, but they do come with risks and potential consequences. Learning about your biases and heuristic tendencies really can help you make better decisions, particularly when under pressure or in an unfamiliar environment. We make decisions all the time and sometimes they’re great, but other times we screw them up and that’s totally normal; but building awareness of how you can avoid bad decisions by understanding your brain might just help create some of your best core memories yet.

Good luck!

Erin is a research communicator who is passionate about influencing positive change via individual and collective responsibility, Effective Altruism and creating something from nothing (preferably with vivid colours). She loves personal development and hearing how you really feel.