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The mysterious mind: why some people won’t go back to places they love

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Carla Candia enjoys recalling the perfect time she had at Mezzanotte, but she's reluctant to revisit the restaurant. (Photo by Sarah Girner for CNS)

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Some people won't go back to places they truly enjoyed for fear of tainting their special memories. (Photo by Sarah Girner for CNS)

People preserve treasured memories in all sorts of ways. Some keep scrapbooks. Some save souvenirs. Some revisit special destinations again and again. And some do something seemingly counterintuitive: They refuse to go back to places where they once had a great experience.

Shel Horowitz, 52, cherishes the magical moments of a trip to Jamaica in the 1980s, his first overseas excursion with the girlfriend who is now his wife. He loved the black-sand beaches, the quiet resort, eating tangerines and meeting locals. But he has little desire to make a return visit.

“I don’t want to see it with grown-up eyes,” he says.

Carla Candia, 28, understands that sentiment. A couple of years ago, when she was living in Venezuela, Candia’s boyfriend surprised her with a birthday dinner at Mezzanotte, a restaurant so romantic that the staff is trained to hide engagement rings in the desserts of future fiancées. The moon was full, and Candia, who now lives in New York City, took in the expansive view of Caracas while eating shrimp and calamari risotto. The night ended with the waiters singing “Feliz Cumpleaños” (“Happy Birthday” in Spanish).

But while the evening was wonderful, Candia refuses to go back for a repeat performance. “What are the chances of having such a perfect time again?” she asks.

For some people, loving a place means never returning to it. These people treat special memories as assets to be protected, according to a study recently published in the “Journal of Consumer Research.” “In most psychology research, the finding is that people want to repeat what’s been most favorable in the past,” says Rebecca Ratner, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Maryland. “What’s neat” about this study, she says, “is that we’re finding, sometimes, social experiences where people particularly don’t want to go back.”

For the study, Ratner; Gal Zauberman, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School; and B. Kyu Kim, a doctoral student at Wharton, asked one group of graduate students to describe situations in which they had had a special time while members of another group wrote their feelings about an evening out that had been just pleasant. What’s interesting, according to Ratner, is that only 2.1 percent of the study subjects said they would be unwilling to return to a place where their experience had been rated as pleasant. But when the experience of a place had been rated as special, the percentage of study subjects who said they would avoid returning jumped to 10.9 percent.

Study subjects were also more willing to return to meaningful places that hadn’t changed. “People are saying that they’re concerned that if they go back to the place and it’s different ... they might instead remember the second experience that was not so special,” Ratner says. “If they think that the experience is going to be very similar to the initial experience, people seem to want to go back, perhaps as a way to reinforce or strengthen the memory.”

But even if a place stays the same, people change. And that can affect their experience—and their willingness to revisit a location. In 2000, during her first year at college, María José Baptista spent four months with her three best friends at California’s Lake Tahoe. They’ve talked many times about meeting up again at Lake Tahoe, but Baptista, 29, always has an excuse not to do so. “The place is still there, but the moment has passed, and all of us have moved on to live different lives,” she explains.

Baptista prefers to keep intact the memory of laughing with her friends inside a cozy wood cabin at the ski resort.

Likewise, Anya Clowers, a nurse and travel writer from California, is reluctant to return to the Greek island Aegina, where she spent what she calls her last summer of “freedom and complete selfishness.” Clowers, 35, would like to visit Greece with her husband and 4-year-old son, but she will probably skip that close-to-the-coast island.

People like Clowers and Baptista want to protect their memories because the simple act of recalling past experiences “feels great,” says Jason P. Leboe, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Manitoba. Just listen to how Andi Fisher, 39, describes her memories of a trip to Mooréa, an island in French Polynesia: “The warm sun and refreshing breeze and beautiful warm water, it is a stress reliever.”

Fisher, who lives in San Francisco, went to Mooréa with her husband in 2005. They stayed in a bungalow and enjoyed the luxury of having nothing to do but relax. “Your decision for the day was whether to sit by the pool or sit by the beach,” she says.

But when Fisher and her husband thought about taking another vacation, they felt reluctant to return. “I did not think that you could actually re-create that sensation a second time in your life,” she says.

People often romanticize a positive experience, says Leboe, who has studied nostalgia. Returning to the scene could crush their view of that idealized place. “If you have a memory of something that was great, the only thing that would threaten it is putting yourself in that scenario again and it turning out not being as great as you remember it.”

If you’ve ever returned to the beloved summer camp of your childhood or visited the house you grew up in, you may have experienced this letdown.

That happened to Christopher Flavelle, who says he spent the best six weeks of his life in 1998 in Prague, Czech Republic. He arrived alone and quickly made several friends at a hostel. They partied at night and hung out together during the day. But when Flavelle went back last year, the Czech capital felt colder even though it was the same time of year. The rooms of the hostel were untouched, the streets looked the same and the bars were all still there. But, he says, he thought, “There’s nothing here without the people that I knew.” Flavelle had lost his emotional connection to Prague: “The charm was gone.” While the trip was a disappointment, Flavelle still has fond feelings about his first visit.

As Ratner points out, her study analyzes people’s beliefs about what will happen if they return to a place. Those beliefs don’t necessarily coincide with experience. That’s what Fisher and her husband happily discovered when they finally decided to repeat their trip to Mooréa. They booked a room at the same hotel and crossed their fingers, hoping that it would still have plenty of tuna and pineapple on the menu. They weren’t disappointed.

“It really was a wonderful experience the second time,” Fisher says.

Her memory was safe.

E-mail: aea2125@columbia.edu