In Autumn 2010 I was presented with an exciting opportunity: to act as neuroscience consultant for the neuromarketing section of a study that Sparkler, a leading media market research company, were conducting on behalf of Thomson Holidays. Thomson had expressed an interest in understanding the psychology of travel. Up until recently their tag line was: “Holidays built with you in mind”. I immediately envisaged the compelling possibility of changing this to: “Holidays built with your mind“.
We decided to use EEG (electroencephalography) to measure the degree to which participants brains’ were engaged by photos depicting various holiday activities. This enabled comparison of these objective measurements of brain engagment with participants’ subjective ratings of how much they would like to do the activities portrayed. Prior to the main body of the experiment, participants were run through some preliminary testing that enabled the software to establish the pattern of brain activity that occurs when: 1) the individual’s attention was engaged, and 2) their emotions were stimulated. The degree of “brain engagement” with photos of various holiday activities (described below) was established by comparing the pattern of brain responses to each photo, with these subject-specific baseline measurements of attention and emotional engagement.
The photos explored a broad stimulus space, spanning a continuum from pedestrian, unambitious holiday activities like sitting on a deckchair on the beach or reading a book by the pool, to adventurous holiday activities like jungle trekking and abseiling. The activities also ranged across a hedonistic to mind-expanding continuum: fun-packed pursuits like clubbing or indulging in spa treatments to exploring local communities, communing with nature and cultural activities like visiting galleries or monuments.
We divided our 32 participants up into 4 different personality types, according to whether they scored “relatively high” or “realtively low” on two of the Big 5 personality traits: Neuroticism and Extraversion. Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative mood states, particularly anxiety, whilst Extraversion is the tendency to be positively engaged with one’s environment. Those that scored high on both scales were our “anxious extraverts” (N+E+), those that scored low on both scales were our “laid back introverts” (N-E-), those that scored high on one measure and low on the other were our “anxious introverts” (N+E-) and “laid back extroverts” (N-E+), respectively. If you’re curious you can try it yourself and see how you score on these measures (PersonalityTest).
The first fascinating insight from this study was that, across the board, all personality types subjectively rated a certain category of stimuli – the adventurous and slightly mind-expanding activities like jungle cruising, visiting a waterfall and horse trekking – amongst their most favoured activities. Yet for two of our personality types these were the very images that engaged their brains the least!! The “anxious extraverts” (N+E+) brains’ were actually most strongly engaged by images depicting much more relaxing activities such as reading by the pool or watching TV in the hotel room. Similarly the “laid-back introverts” (N-E-) brains’ were most strongly engaged by photos of spa treatments or watching traditional dancers or a band in action. Might this suggest that we are not as adventurous as we would like to believe?
It seems that only “anxious introverts” (N+E-) know their own minds – they were the only group whose subjective preference ratings matched their objective measurements of brain engagement. And as for the “laid-back extraverts” (N-E+), the very people you would expect to favour a big night out clubbing or pursuing their love for adrenaline sports, they were actually much more engaged by photos of people walking through hills and parks or visiting galleries and cultural sites.
There are many perfectly reasonable explanations for why we might not have a clear idea of what we really want in a holiday. Kent Berridge has been researching hedonic responses for decades and has established clear differences between liking and wanting. In the context of our study, it is perfectly feasable to like the idea of trekking through the jungle but at the same time not really wanting to waste our precious week’s holiday being bitten by insects, sleeping amidst predators and struggling to preserve our last precious drops of drinking water. There is also the positive illusion of self-enhancement to contend with, whereby the concept of ourselves as an “adventurous-type” falls down when we find ourselves struggling to think of a single example of something genuinely adventurous that we have achieved in the recent past. Not to mention cognitive dissonance, the various potentially conflicting factors that co-exist in our brains as we consider the suitability of each holiday option in terms of whether it suits our wishes and needs, as well as those of our partners and children. In order to reduce the cognitive dissonance all sorts of nonsense can come out of our mouths as we fail to make sense of all these competing considerations thwarting our ability to reach a sensible conclusion.
This was just the very first step into exploring the Psychology of Travel and credit must go to Thomson Holidays for funding an extremely ambitious and wide-ranging, blue skies pilot study. A journalist from the Independent newspaper, realising that this would make a great story, took us up on our offer of putting him through the half hour experiment to investigate the difference between his stated preferences and brain engagement (read his article here). I sincerely believe that there is great potential for this pioneering sortie into the world of travel psychology to be honed and developed into experimental paradigms that are repeatable and therefore publishable in peer-reviewed academic journals. Who knows, in light of these early findings, perhaps one day, in the not-so-distant future, booking a holiday will be as simple as wiring our personal EEG cap into a computer and waiting for the results of our brains’ responses to various holiday pics to be converted into a bespoke selection of holiday options that suit us down to the ground?