Reuters/JP Moczulski

Researchers in Sweden find that even dedicated drivers can learn to enjoy the subway

One of the strongest findings in modern psychology is that people are terrible at predicting the strength of their emotions. We know winning the lottery will make us happy, for instance, but we think it will make us much happier, for much longer, than it actually does. The flip side is we get over things like the loss of a sports team or a political candidate surprisingly quickly. As Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert once told me, we rebound away from joy, but also from distress. Unless you're a Kardashian, life is a perpetual regression toward the emotional mean.

This idea that things aren't as bad as we think they'll be was the basis for a recent study of transit satisfaction among commuters in Sweden. A group of researchers recruited 106 people in a midsized city who typically drove to work, and enticed them to switch to transit for a month with a 30-day prepaid fare pass. Before the month began, the researchers asked the drivers to predict how satisfied they'd be with the subway experience. Then the researchers checked back every week to see how the new riders were doing.

We'll call them Paul McCartney, because they had to admit things were getting a little better all the time. On measures of safety, travel time, cleanliness, seating, and overall experience, the test riders finished the month with significantly higher levels of satisfaction than they thought they'd feel before the switch, the researchers concluded last month in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology:

"Thus, after having used public transportation for a full month, participants reported significantly greater satisfaction than they had initially reported—that is, before the test period—in several attribute-specific measures.

"Actual experiences of public transportation represent an efficient intervention for countering the adverse effects of a car-use habit on car users’ predictions about future satisfaction with public transportation."

Among the study's finer details, it's interesting to note that rider ratings on every criteria rose over the course of the month. So not only did habitual drivers enjoy their transit commute more than they thought they would, but their enjoyment went up the more they rode. The trial even seemed to have a lasting impact on drivers: when asked to rate their feelings on transit once more, two weeks after the test's conclusion, they remained as satisfied as they'd been by the end of the month.

For some reason the human inability to predict well-being is particularly harsh on commuters. In previous studies of happiness, commuting has been found to be the least pleasant part of our day. Yet some of us make things even worse by trading a longer commuter for a bigger house; several years ago, two Swiss economists found that if you commute 45 minutes to work, you have to make nearly 20 percent more money to make the trip worth it from a standpoint of well-being. Part of the problem with long commutes is what's called the "weighting mistake"—overvaluing the extra bedroom you'll never use, while devaluing the extra 20 minutes to and from work.

What's happening with the case of car commuters and transit seems to be a similar cognitive bias known as the "focusing illusion." By focusing too much on the negative aspects of transit, like waiting on the platform, habitual drivers are overlooking the positive ones, like reading on the train. The authors of the new study believe a better understanding of concepts like the "focusing illusion" could help policymakers attract people onto transit modes that already service their city neighborhood. It should, after all, be an easier bias to correct than the weighting mistake, which would require implementing politically unpopular programs like congestion pricing.

The researchers don't offer any policy suggestions to ease the transit switch, but it isn't hard to think of some based on their study. An introductory fare for new riders, for instance. Or breaks for businesses that subsidize employee transit. Or maybe just hand out temporary fare cards at parking garages to drivers, like they won the lottery.

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