Before listening to an interview with journalist Michael Easter, author of the Comfort Crisis, it never occurred to me that travel is like a Las Vegas slot machine. How so? Well, slot machines – as wells as many of our social media programs – are designed to take advantage of something called the “scarcity loop.” The scarcity loop leverages three factors for stimulating the mind: 1) Opportunity 2) Unpredictable rewards 3) Quick repeatability In the case of slot machines, you have an opportunity to get something good (ie money). The rewards are highly unpredictable (ie. you don’t know when you’re going to win, or how much). And finally, there is an opportunity for quick repeatability (ie. you can immediately play again.)
Similarly, it’s easy to fall into a scarcity loop when traveling. Take my recent trip to New Zealand, for example. Donica and I experienced ample opportunities to achieve “something good,” ie. great food, great sights, great shows, great beaches. The rewards were certainly unpredictable, ie. we never knew what beautiful view we might stumble onto, what stunning hike, what delicious meal, or when. And if we didn’t get what we wanted in one town, we could immediately “play again” by moving on to the next city. No wonder travel is so enticing! It’s all brain chemistry!

Anyway, I stumbled upon a great example of an “unpredictable reward” while scouting a treasure hunt in the Chicago downtown area. There on a wall was this fascinating plaque describing the historic moment when the United States adopted the Standard Time System. Apparently, before 1883, the only existing standard of exact local time was high noon, leading to over 100 different noons around the country. As you can imagine, this wreaked havoc with the nation’s train system. Delegates at the General Time Convention (which sounds very sci-fi) decided to establish four equal times zones across the country, each one hour ahead of the time zone to the west. Regardless of where the sun was, all railroad clocks in each zone would be synchronized to strike the hour simultaneously. The day this new system was inaugurated, when railroad clocks across the country were reset to the hour, became known as “The Day of Two Noons.” Interestingly, although initiated by the train industry, this time system wasn’t formerly adopted by the US government until 1918, 35 years later.

It’s a really cool plaque—one that gave me a great deal of unpredictable pleasure (and dopamine). Needless to say, I immediately set out to find even more cool stuff in the area, because making discoveries is eminently repeatable, right? What can I say, I’m a slot machine!

(Is the “scarcity loop” a good thing? In the case of slot machines – probably not so great. The designers of gambling devices are most certainly manipulating your brain to keep you “addicted,” to keep you playing mindlessly for hours and hours. No bueno. With travel, it’s perhaps a bit different. There are ample locations in the world that don’t cost you any money. I find it hard to see the downside of relentlessly pursuing sunsets, for example. Still, I think it’s wise to exercise some mindfulness around all this – especially if you find yourself falling into a pattern of rushing madly from place to place, desperate get your next novelty “fix.” Inevitably, slow and steady, agenda-minimal travels delivers the most long-lasting, addiction-free rewards.)