The Road Trip Effect: Forging Close Friendships

You’re halfway to West Virginia with a car full of people. Some were close friends before the trip and some were people you barely knew. Now, though, you’re the six best friends any person could have. Why is that? What is it about a long drive in a hot car that can bring people together? Is there some special road trip psychology at work?

A friend of mine who reads this blog gave me the idea for this post. He posed basically the same question I just did. I’ll be honest, as far as I know, there hasn’t been a published “road trip effect” in the psychology journals. That research would involve studies that would be expensive and exhausting[1]  I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this chance to make a classic dad pun. “Exhausting”? “Road Trip”? Get it? Cars have exhaust…yeah, you got it. I shouldn’t have doubted you. to do.

Nevertheless, I can think of at least a few established principles in social psychology that could help explain this phenomenon, so we’ll discover those here together.

I should note that I could have just as easily called this the “Summer Camp Effect.” It’s a similar phenomenon–cooped up in less-than-comfortable accommodations with people you barely know, and after a summer of being with those same people, attending talent shows hosted by Alan Shemper, and saving the earth from a falling meteor, you couldn’t be closer. Many of these same ideas would apply in that scenario, too.

1. Mere exposure and road trip psychology

Let’s start simply. Perhaps the clearest thing that happens on a road trip that lasts many hours or even days is that you’re just with those other people for a long time. Even if you didn’t say a word to anyone (the sign of a really killer road trip), you’re still around those other people for a long time.

I’ve written about mere exposure a few times on this blog, but the gist is this: the more we’re exposed to something, the more we like it. You see the same brand over and over during the Super Bowl, and you become more favorable toward that brand. You hear the same song on the radio a few times, and you start to like it more. The same can happen with people. The more we’re exposed to someone, the more we like that person.

2. Working toward a common goal

Usually, psychologists talk about “contact” as a way of reducing prejudice between whole groups of people, but I think there’s an element of it that applies to the “road trip effect,” too. Intergroup contact is a way of reducing prejudice by bringing different groups together. For example, if there is a problem with prejudice against Muslims, then the research on contact would suggest that one way to reduce that prejudice is to bring Christians and Muslims together to work cooperatively on a project. That way, these groups would start to see that they aren’t so different.

Granted, it’s not quite as simple as that. There are a number of conditions that must be met for intergroup contact to have its benefits…otherwise things can go a little haywire. But one of those conditions is relevant to the road trip effect: working toward a common goal. The idea is that when people come together and work cooperatively with a shared goal in mind, they are more able to set aside their differences and contribute to a common good.

A road trip has a singular goal for everyone in the car: make it to Vegas![2]  Although feel free to substitute your preferred destination. I’m not the boss of you. Whether it’s reading the map, getting gas, or just keeping each other entertained, everyone’s ultimate goal is pretty much the same, and that common goal can help strengthen your ties.

3. Getting to know each other

roadtrip3I can hear it now–you’re crying out “Obviously!”[3]  Or “Obvi”, for hipper readers. But it’s not just that we like people if we know stuff about them. The process of getting to know someone can bring you closer.

In psychology, there’s the idea of mutual self-disclosure, which can be a powerful way to bring people together. Basically, self-disclosure is when we reveal personal information about ourselves to another person. In a big analysis of more than 100 studies, researchers found evidence for two key ideas: we like people who disclose information about themselves and we like other people more when we disclose to them.

In fact, Arthur Aron and his colleagues developed a technique called the “fast friends” technique, which involves a series of conversation starters that go from the mundane (e.g., “Where are you from?”) to the more personal (e.g., “What’s your happiest early childhood memory?”).  Even though the people in their studies were strangers to one another when they came in for session, they ended up feeling quite close to each other after their conversation was over.

Maybe something similar happens on a road trip. After spending hours in a car with other people, the collection of go-to small talk topics starts to run dry (you can only say, “What a nice day out!” so many times), and you inevitably start to talk about weightier topics. The simple act of having that conversation can be enough to deepen your bond with the others in the car.

4. Discovering points of similarity

It’s a simple fact that’s been shown again and again in psychological studies: people tend to prefer others who are similar to them. I’ve written about this before; a recent study found that adolescent friendships were more likely to dissolve (and to do so especially soon) when the friends were of different genders, physical aggressiveness, school ability, and social status.

One of the clearest overall cases of the similarity-liking effect is that we like people who share our opinions. The great thing about this is that we all hold some opinions in common with one another, and if you talk long enough, you’ll find that shared interest. I happen to love the movie Wet Hot American Summer (if you didn’t notice, I already linked to a clip from the movie earlier in this post). If you also love that movie, and we were on a road trip together, we might eventually stumble upon our shared love of Camp Firewood, and then our friendship would be made permanent! And even if that movie doesn’t come up, if we spend that long together, we’re bound to come across something we both like.

5. Having shared experiences

roadtrip1Throughout a big adventure, you’re actively creating memories that you can later share with the other people involved. Simply having gone through an experience with other people might bring you closer. I’m sure you wistfully think about the flat tire you had to change, the time you got hopelessly lost, or the billboard in Pennsylvania that was so ridiculous, that you laughed about it the rest of your drive.

Having shared experiences can be powerful. One recent study showed that sharing an experience with another person intensifies the experience itself. In the study, people sampled some tasty chocolate and reported how much they liked it. People said it was more pleasant and flavorful when they were tasting it at the same time as another person, compared to when they were the only ones tasting it (even though the chocolate was exactly the same).

Other new research has shown that the reward networks in our brains[4]  The ventral striatum and medial orbitofrontal cortex…for my neuroanatomy junkies. are more active when we view emotional pictures and we think our friends are viewing them at the same time (even though the friend is in another room).

Life is a Highway, Right?

There you go–five ways in which road trips can help foster deeper bonds between people. I’ve been on plenty of long car rides with other people, and it’s amazing how much a friendship can develop by spending a good deal of time with a person.

These five principles are just a smattering of what probably happens on a long journey with someone, and as I said before, they’re just established social psychological principles that seem relevant to the “road trip effect” but have never been explicitly tested in that context.

My advice? Next time you’re on a long journey with a group people, forget about these five principles and just go along for the ride. Let your connections with others be natural and enjoy the wind in your hair. By the time reach Topeka[5]  But seriously, who goes to Topeka? you’ll find that you’ve found common ground, created shared experiences, and gotten to know your fellow travelers better than you thought.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this chance to make a classic dad pun. “Exhausting”? “Road Trip”? Get it? Cars have exhaust…yeah, you got it. I shouldn’t have doubted you.
2.  Although feel free to substitute your preferred destination. I’m not the boss of you.
3.  Or “Obvi”, for hipper readers.
4.  The ventral striatum and medial orbitofrontal cortex…for my neuroanatomy junkies.
5.  But seriously, who goes to Topeka?

One thought on “The Road Trip Effect: Forging Close Friendships

  1. Loved this post Andy! One of my fondest memories was taking a road trip with three friends in a brown Ford LTD from Florida to NY. We still talk about the trip, to this day. Got my first (and only to date) speeding ticket. Fun times! Loved what you mention in #3 about getting to know each other. What a great way, road trip or not, to get to know someone better. Putting “What’s your happiest early childhood memory?” in my quiver now 🙂

Leave a Comment