Why are we so hung up on travelling with people we know?

By Anna Brech

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The phrase “group travel” has undergone a radical facelift in the past five years. No longer the domain of stuffy coach trips, exploring the world with strangers is a more popular – and adventurous – option than ever before. A new breed of savvy travellers are seizing the opportunity to escape with like-minded souls; seeing the planet, and themselves, in a whole new light.

This is a trend that’s transforming our social circles, and catapulting us headfirst into a ream of novel experiences (of the kind we’d never try with people we know). It’s the wanderlust equivalent of popping a Berocca: fizzy, exciting, and slightly unexpected. 

And yet, by default, many of us still cast around for friends and family to join us travelling before reaching for the group option. But why? And what are we missing out on by sticking with what –  and who – we know? 

The familiar makes us feel safe

Studies show clearly that we’re drawn to people who are familiar to us. The more we see certain people, the more attracted we’ll be to them. This is true not just of individuals, but also certain styles of behaviours or things. Often the impact of this is subliminal, which is what makes advertising so effective. Even if we find an ad annoying, we will subconsciously see the object being advertised as more appealing every time we’re exposed to it.

Why? The familiar makes us feel safe and secure. Hunter-gatherers of yesteryear were used to being threatened; it’s how our fight-or-flight response evolved. So we like things that lull our cognitive systems into a sense of security; including people we know to travel with. 

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The downside: First off, what you find familiar might not always be good for you. Some people find themselves drawn into the same toxic relationships over and again; not because they’re satisfying but because they’re a known quantity. In a similar vein, just because you know someone, it might not make them the best person to travel with. A group of strangers could be a much better option (not least because there are lots of people to choose from).

Secondly, familiarity can dampen your sense of curiosity. Research shows the exposure effect described above doesn’t work as well with children, because they’re still developing and tend to prefer new things. By resisting the familiar, you too can rewind to the young, inquiring person you once were.

We like structure and certainty

It’s not just a cliché that we become more narrow-minded as we get older: it’s actual science. Our brain’s ability to process information peaks in the mid-20s, and beyond that, we compensate by economizing the way that we think. 

“Seeing things in more categorical or ‘black-or-white’ terms does make for more frugal and efficient thinking,” reads this thought piece from Psychology Today.  “A review of 88 studies in 12 countries shows that older people are generally less tolerant of ambiguity, and have a higher need for closure and structure. This is often manifested by their stronger set of principles and rules, and a tendency to dismiss information that conflicts with their views.”

We like to travel with people we know, then, because it tees with this base need for structure. We know where we’re at and what to expect – there are no curveballs lurking on the horizon.

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The downside: This kind of approach can lead to tunnel vision. If you hem yourself in with certainties in life, where is the room for challenge and excitement? Your ability to learn – a core facet of happiness – erodes. With this kind of mindset, it’s little wonder that our social circles narrow as we get older; just like our views. Travelling with strangers, on the other hand, has the exact opposite effect. 

We’re resistant to change

Change is something that many people find difficult in life; and all the more so as we get older. Openness to experience is one of the so-called “Big Five” core traits that behaviourists use to measure personality. It’s linked to risk-taking and rebellion, but also creativity and innovation.

Studies indicate that as we age, we become less open; our appetite for new ideas and experiences gradually diminishes. We gain comfort, instead, from predictable environments, set schedules and tried-and-tested routines. 

Not only that, but our personality hits a stable and consistent plateau; we become more “set in our ways”. “It’s not that personality is fixed and can’t change,” scientist Paul T. Costa Jr. of the US National Institutes of Health tells The Cut. Rather, “it’ll take some relatively powerful change in the environment” to alter behaviour, the older and more settled we get. 

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The downside: A fair amount of stability is good, of course. But there is such as thing as being too comfortable.  Beware routine for routine’s sake. A good job is only so if you enjoy it; otherwise that very same “stability” is tying you down and preventing you from finding new, more rewarding opportunities. Similarly, you may have that one person you always travel with, just because. 

Research shows that novelty feels good; new experiences boost memory and facilitate a lasting sense of happiness. Tether yourself too closely to routines, and you’ll cut yourself off from these benefits. Travelling with strangers can be just the kind of change you need as a tonic. 

Fear ties us to the status quo

Us humans are creatures of habit: we prefer the status quo, even if there are better options out there for us. And so, faced with a scary decision, we often feel paralyzed. “Few of us are immune to the ‘status quo bias’: we prefer the way things are over the frightening unknown,” explains Guardian writer Oliver Burkeman. “So when you consult your gut about whether to seek a divorce, abandon your PhD, or move to Iceland, the answer you receive will be biased toward inertia.”

This inertia gives you the “feeling of being on the fence”, argues Burkeman, when really it’s just fear that’s  obscuring your vision. All other things being equal, you should go for the scarier choice, knowing that fear is skewing the balance of your decision. 

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The downside: Follow the status quo, and you’ll miss out on new experiences and avoid taking risks. Be aware and push through that fear, however, and your world will transform. 

When it comes to travelling, you may well choose to travel with people you know because it’s just the way things are. But travelling with strangers is the bolder choice: and with that scary unknown comes the opportunity to grow, and become a bigger person.

Strangers feel like second best

This last point is anecdotal, but no less valid for it. A lot of the time, we’re hung up on travelling with people we know because that’s what it feels like we should be doing. Why on earth, we think, would anyone travel with strangers when they have loved ones to go with? Strangers feels like second best; a back-up option rather than something to aspire to. 

Serial wanderluster Teha Kennard, who has travelled with Flash Pack on over 15 trips, admits that she fell into this trap before trying out group travel for the first time. 

“To be honest, the idea of travelling with a group of strangers did not feel like the most natural thing in the world to me at first,” she says. “ It felt like something that single people have to do because we don’t have a significant other to travel with […] I saw it almost as a consolation prize. 

“Now when I hear that flawed logic I have to laugh I have found the exact opposite to be true,” she adds. “It was apparent to me on my very first escape that the opportunity to be on a Flash Pack trip is a privilege.”

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The downside: The problem with this logic is that you may well end up stuck – and the worst thing is, you won’t know it. Travelling with strangers opens you up to a whole new world of experience. You meet new people, try new things and you’re more willing to be bold and take positive risks. It’s a bit like trying on a new version of yourself. Untied from the expectations and beliefs of people who know you, you can be who you want to be. You’ll be amazed at what emerges, and how this affects your perspective of life. 

Travelling with strangers changes everything, including the relationships with people you already know. It’s not just for single people; but also those in relationships, mid-divorce or anyone who fancies enlarging their lives. But if you never venture there – and instead yield to your own preconceptions – you’ll simply never know what you’re missing.


Want to get started with a group travel adventure of your own? Check out how Flash Pack works

Images: Unsplash, Pexels

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