Have you ever taken a multi-day road trip with a group of friends? Maybe you stayed in roadside motels along a dusty highway, or maybe you set up some tents. Maybe you lived off of gas station food, or greasy spoon diners, or mountains and mountains of peanut butter and jelly. One thing we’re pretty sure of, though: However you all made it through your trip together; we’re guessing you’re still close friends.
Friends on the Road
If you’ve ever been on a long road trip, there’s a good chance that all of these accounts ring true to your experience. The more you read about how road trips boost friendships, the more you start to see similar reasons being given over and over.
Two reasons stand out. The first is that being on a road trip lets people have longer, deeper conversations than other scenarios, and those conversations are the anchors of meaningful friendships.
The second, Road trips are a shared experience where people work together toward a common goal, and that experience can give a relationship a strong foundation on which to build. We thought we’d take on each of these explanations individually and find out how justified they are.
In Jordan Bishop’s account for Forbes, he draws attention to the types of conversations you can have on a “manager’s schedule” (made up of short chunks, subject to much disruption, never quite “off” — all highly valued in the modern world — and those you can have on a “maker’s schedule” (depends on large chunks of time, severely impacted by distractions, dependent on regular rest). Road trips, Bishop says, allow for people to dive into longer, deeper, uninterrupted “maker’s conversations.”
Let’s just take it for granted that deeper conversations are easier to have on a road trip — after all, all those empty minutes have to be filled somehow, and small talk only goes so far. Long, deep talks make you happier. When scientists recorded students’ 30-second snippets of conversation over and over throughout the day, they found that those who had more “deep” conversations reported higher levels of happiness.
Road trips are fun, but they’re also a lot of work. Seriously — that’s a small, cramped space you’re sharing, plus you’ve got to manage music selection, scheduling bathroom breaks, and negotiating fast food options. It’s all about making it to that next checkpoint by the time the sun goes down — and that shared experience is surely enough to bond two people together, right? Right. Sort of.
According to a team from the University of Oxford, this question comes down to two elements: joint attention and shared goals. Joint attention is what you and a buddy do when you’re both staring out the windshield for miles upon miles; shared goals are what you have when you’re both trying to make it to that famous barbecue joint the next state over before it closes.
Researchers analyzed how these activities affected bonding with a computer-based test. Participants were paired up with a stranger who sat next to them in front of a screen. Both were asked to pay attention to what was happening on one side of the screen — in some conditions, each person looked at opposite sides; in others, they looked at the same side. Next, they had to perform a cognitive task, for which their performance was judged either by how well they each did alone or by how quickly they worked as a team. Finally, they answered questions about how much they had bonded with their partner at the end of the experiment. The result? Those who looked at the same side of the screen were more likely to bond, although whether people worked together or alone on the task didn’t have much of an effect.
So maybe the “common goal” part of the road trip experience isn’t especially helpful when it comes to making friendships. That makes some sense, especially if you and your friends have a different philosophy on bladder capacity. But even if tensions rise over the course of the trip, the shared experience of the road is likely to keep those friendships strong and lively.