Why other people’s holidays are always great: the magic of cognitive dissonance

Rainy dayAsk a friend or work colleague about their holiday and the chances are that the description will fall somewhere between amazing, awesome and brilliant. In most cases we don’t need to ask; the bronzed storyteller will proudly share every highlight of their holiday with anyone who can’t get away in time.

And yet, go to the average holiday destination and what do you see? While plenty of folks do manage to relax and enjoy the break away from their daily routine, many others can be seen to moan, grimace and grumble their way through their entire holiday. Everything is expensive, the food is bad, no-one speaks English and the locals are unfriendly.

So how do we reconcile this difference between the fantastic stories we hear from those who have returned from their breaks and the miserable faces that many of the same people wear while they are actually enduring their holiday? Does our memory fade so quickly from the ordeals we feel we suffer on our travels, damping down the details of those culinary or transport-related horrors and leaving only the smiling faces and the uplifting moments?

Cognitive dissonance 

Those who have studied marketing or psychology will be familiar with the term cognitive dissonance. This refers to the discomfort we feel when we hold two conflicting views. We tend to rationalise how we view our own experiences to match with our previous expectations. Marketeers know this and will act to reduce our cognitive dissonance relating to their brands.

For example if we purchase a new car it is not unusual to receive numerous phone calls and leaflets in the following months from the car company. They know they are not going to get another sale so quickly. What they do know is that we are exposed to other brands who tell us that their alternative is faster, smoother or better value than the one we chose. By reinforcing the belief that our purchase decision was the right one, they aim to reduce our cognitive dissonance and hope that in the long run we will become repeat customers.

So it is with our own travels. However much a holiday may stink people will have invested a huge amount of time, money and emotional effort in preparation of their trip. In the weeks prior to departure they will have told others what they were going to do on the trip and everyone would see just how excited they were. When the reality doesn’t quite match the expectation, there is a tendency to rationalise and make that reality sound a little more like the pictures they had already painted. It’s usually not a case of lying; they just remember the highlights a little more vividly while putting the more traumatic moments down as mishaps that make a great story over dinner.

Next time you hear someone tell you just how amazing their holiday was and that you should immediately pack your bag and follow their lead, it might be worth just pausing for a moment. Did they really have the trip of a lifetime? Or is the account they are sharing with you a distorted one, created in their mind as a way of shielding them from the reality of a trip that didn’t live up to their expectations?

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

4 Responses to “Why other people’s holidays are always great: the magic of cognitive dissonance”

  1. The cognitive dissonance is an interesting perspective. I guess we all try to ‘stretch’ a bit reality to have it matching better with our dreams and hopes.
    I suspect this happens also in the reverse case, with people willing at any cost highlighting the negative of a trip.

    November 14, 2011 at 10:08 am
  2. Interesting and intelligent post. Makes sense that, after investing time/energy into a trip that didn’t go so well, one would be tempted to provide you with another version of what actually happened. I personally try to laugh about the misadventures. But I am aware of that particular temptation, too.

    November 16, 2011 at 3:32 pm
  3. Thank you Lisa and Simon for your comments. As you say Simon it happens in reverse too – particularly perhaps when we hear about other people’s trips that we decided not to take. The human mind is a wonderful trickster…

    November 16, 2011 at 5:35 pm
  4. I think it depends on one’s overall personality–happy people tend to be happy where ever they are, and unhappy people complain at home and on the road. I wrote a piece about travel amnesia that pretty much describes the phenomenon you’re calling cognitive dissonance. Hey, I’ve even (mostly) forgotten the pain of childbirth, lol.

    November 21, 2011 at 2:37 pm