The Psychology of Travel Primer

Travel Psychology 101

“We don’t have to be the originators of these treks; we merely need to repeat them in order to reap the psychological bennies that fuel the human psyche . . .” –Michael Brein

There is no known theorized body of psychology that explicitly addresses questions of the psychology of travel. Of course there are some fundamental Psychology 101 concepts that do apply, and these you will read below. Psychology, although a social science, still remains today an ‘art’ by which lay and scientific practitioners weave and create their explanations. Below, I weave my own fabric of explanations of the psychology of travel as they apply to the pop psychology of everyday travel and adventure.

1. Self-Esteem: The majority of people tend to live very mundane lives. Anything they can do to enhance their own images of themselves elevates their estimates of their own sense of self worth in their own eyes and well as in the eyes of others. We all want to feel better about ourselves. To the extent that we can retrace, or re-experience the travels of others whom we hold in high regard enables us to feel in some way that perhaps we too can identify with them, i.e., be more like them.

In some ‘magical thinking’ sense, by walking the walk and talking the talk, something of the rich and famous, and even the infamous, can ‘rub off’ on us in some way. Perhaps, in some manner, we see ourselves as gaining some of the qualities of that master, soldier, statesman, artist or saint . . .

We also gain in self-esteem by gaining the respect and admiration of others who see that we have accomplished, retraced, re-experienced the adventures of these adulated people.

2. Achievement of Higher Order Needs: For most travelers, the basic needs of sustenance, e.g., food, water, and so on are met. Higher order needs such as knowledge and achievement are often the rewards of travel. To this extent, if we can retrace the expeditions and adventures of historically famous adventurers before us, we can personally feel and experience the rewards of our own achievements. The more famous the adventurer, the more difficult the trek, the greater the challenge, the more sense of achievement we feel we accomplish by retracing the steps.

“Be all that you can be is” the sense most of us have regarding difficult challenges and achievements.

3. Curiosity: Perhaps the single greatest motivation or driving force serving the fulfillment of human needs is curiosity. Seeking new things, new experiences provides us with the means for satisfying our basic and higher order needs. We are very curious; in travel we seek new stimulation of all kinds. The search, drive, or thirst for novelty, adventure, and excitement are all in the service of personal reward and satisfaction. Travel is, of course, one of the best means for satisfying our curiosity: no other human endeavor provides us with the scope and variety of human experience across cultures.

4. Peak Experience: We seek the peak experience, i.e., maximizing stimulation and passions afforded by the explosion of sights, sounds and fragrances of travel; seeking the mystical spiritual experience are all the means by which we seek to transform our often boring, mundane, uneventful existences back home.

5. Re-connecting / Re-validating Our Lives: Travel enables us to make our current lives ‘more real’ by re-examing the present in light of the past. Thus, by retracing our ‘roots,’ whether in a national or religious sense, for example by visiting places of our ancestors or by making religious pilgrimages or by revisiting famous historical or religious sights, the vivid sensory experiences–the recreation of past to present tense–enables us to ‘relate’ and re-identify. Re-connecting / re-validating by visiting famous places or by retracing the steps of famous people adds to our sense and knowledge of reality by creating immediacy for us through our senses of what for us was merely mental imagery.

Perhaps T. S. Eliot’s famous poem illustrates this best:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

6. Excitement and Adventure: We seek the romantic; we seek excitement, and we seek adventure. But what, really, is excitement? Adventure? To consider what excitement and adventure truly are, we need to consider that, for the most part, people are quite fearful of the unknown, wary of what is different, afraid of change, prone to culture shock. Is there a paradox here?

Interestingly, adventurous, romantic and exciting travel, is, to some extent, precisely so BECAUSE OF the element of discomfort, insecurity and potential danger. We seek romance, excitement and adventure TO A POINT–just to the point of ‘danger’, so-to-speak . . . I use the word ‘danger’ in the sense as anything that tends to tip the balance of comfort, security, safety in the direction of discomfort, insecurity and risk, both psychological and otherwise . . . Of course, one person’s sense of adventure is another’s greatest phobia or fear. Riding the Zambezi River rapids. for example, is one person’s thrill and another’s white-knuckle near-death experience.

The balance between romance / adventure / excitement and culture shock / fear / discomfort is a fine line. I think travelers try to maximize their own sense of excitement and adventure by stretching the envelope, i.e., by experiencing all that they can experience, just short of where their fear factors lie. Excitement and adventure balanced against the fear of the unknown is probably the fundamental travel dynamic. ‘Excitement’ may be defined, then, as coming as close to danger / discomfort / insecurity without actually being in danger. . .

To retrace the same adventures that famous explorers have done here-to-fore enables us to attempt to re-experience a bit of the unknown which was greater at the time, but which is somewhat muted now, hence adventurous, but not quite so risky. It is easier to face climbing a mountain peak that has been breeched before than it is to face it for the first time.

7. Robert Frost wrote:

Two Roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
I took the one less traveled by . . .

By following in the retraced footsteps of the rich and famous and the infamous, somewhat carefully re-orchestrated or re-choreographed steps of these others without the great fear of the unknown or without the great insecurities or dangers or cultural shocks, we are able to experience these grand tours–perhaps another variant of tours as in eco-tours or cultural safaris–we are able to experience these semi-organized sorts of ‘adventure travels’ reasonably safely and assuredly. We don’t have to be the originators of these treks; we merely need to repeat them in order to reap the psychological bennies that fuel the human psyche . . .

What better way to max our curiosity, passion, adventure, excitement, romance and liking and understanding ourselves all the more for it, while enhancing our lives in every way, what better way than to follow in the safe and secure footsteps of people whom we admire and respect and who have been there, done that before–what better way to stretch our own sense of adventure, excitement and resulting achievements by following the paths of those who came before us.

Dr Michael Brein–06/22/2006

* Dr Michael Brein is The Travel Psychologist living on Bainbridge Island, Washington. He is an avid world-traveler as well as author, publisher and lecturer on a variety of travel subjects. His travel guide series, Michael Brein’s Travel Guides to Sightseeing by Public Transportation may be viewed at www.michaelbrein.com. Michael Brein may be reached at michaelbrein@gmail.com or 206.618.7618.

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