• Elita • Nomadic Thunker

Are You a Solo-Traveller or a Group-Traveller?

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The year was 2014.

I had, by then, travelled a fair amount, both - solo as well as with a group where I hadn’t known anyone prior to that trip and I was preparing for my next; this one would be with a group and where, by “preparing” I mean, I’d told the travel agency to ‘take my money’ and told my bosses to ‘grant me my leave of absence’.

On my last day at work - before ‘hashtag: wanderlust’ would reign over my senses for the next two weeks - over lunch, a colleague remarked: “Elita, you’re travelling with a group? Aren’t you a solo traveller? Don’t you, like, hate people?” All this while we were a bunch of 35-40 people seated around a table stuffing our faces with food.

At that moment, I hadn’t recognised the irony to call it out!

In less than 24 hours, I was on a train, chuk-chuking away from all things townhall meetings, spreadsheets and PPTs when my reverie was suddenly interrupted by a “Hey, you are not allowed to be solo traveller when you’re travelling with us!” All this while my socially-anxious brain had actually been accustoming itself to new people and their varying degrees of idiosyncrasies.

At that moment, I was already too preoccupied to come up with ‘a witty and blistering retort’!

Me and my socially-anxious brain

That is a mini-representation of one of many forced polarities I’ve been dodging for as long as I can remember: Am I a solo traveller OR a group traveller?

Hashtag: The Nation Wants To Know (lulZ)

What’s stranger is that I have never been asked to my face whether or not I identify as belonging to either one of these camps! Yet ‘solo travel’ has become this singular brushstroke that’s painted over me to the extent where my own attempts at disputing this hijacked narrative, falls on deaf ears. It’s a presumption that precedes my presence, no matter where I go or what I do.

At a speaking event recently – and by ‘recently’ I obviously mean that pre ‘new-normal’ era of yore – I was introduced as having travelled ‘solo’ to all of India’s 29 states by my 29th birthday. I haven’t travelled solo to all of them.

More importantly, I had written my speaker bio and shared it with the organizers.

Why, hello ‘Confirmation Bias’!

Dictionary.com states that confirmation bias ‘stems from the tendency to process and analyse information in such a way that it supports one’s pre-existing ideas and conditions’.

Why are any of us – myself included – prone to the confirmation bias?

Well, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (and I quote): “Philosophers note that humans have difficulty processing information in a rational, unbiased manner once they have developed an opinion about the issue. Humans are better able to rationally process information, giving equal weight to multiple viewpoints, if they are emotionally distant from the issue…”

In other words, “Confirmation bias is a cognitive shortcut we use when gathering and interpreting information. Evaluating evidence takes time and energy, and so our brain looks for such shortcuts to make the process more efficient”

So, whether it was that colleague or the fellow-traveller on that train or the organizers of the event, somewhere they were all relying on that ‘cognitive shortcut’ to arrive at what they considered was an accurate assessment of me.

‘Presumption preceding my presence’, remember?

'Confirmation bias is a cognitive shortcut'. The photo above is just for aesthetic ;)

I think, therefore… you are

To borrow from a reference I’d made in the “Are you a cat-person or a dog-person?” post last month, to be a dash AND dash person – which in this instance would have been that I am a solo traveller AND a group traveller – activates cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive what now?

Cognitive Dissonance refers to the mental turmoil and anguish we experience when we’re required to consider and hold two or more contradictory ideas simultaneously!

Basically, what this implies is that because we prefer to be in a state of cognitive consistency where our thoughts, ideas, behaviours are all in alignment and in harmony with each other - and the wider environment we’re a part of - the introduction of any new information which is typically not in alignment with the status quo, indicates that a decision of some sort needs to be made in the near future.

In other words, a side has to be picked.

Dash OR Dash.

Ergo, Elita is a solo traveller.

Good old, Dilbert!

Never mind the fact that for me travelling solo transpired in 2012 out of that desperate need to not have to watch as my “paid leaves” get sacrificed at the altar of indecision and faulty financial planning on part of those whom I was hoping to enlist as co-travellers.

Never mind that to me the narrative was never about being a certain type of traveller. Or even a traveller, for that matter!

Never mind that for me writing about my travels was informed and guided by the same need for self-expression that had not only informed and guided me when I used to blog about being skinny but also continues to inform and guide me – in the present – as I design and organize workshops and programs on employing a freestyle form of writing to express oneself by putting pen to paper.
Writing has and continues to be my medium for self-expression

Right, right, right… Wrong!

These personal experiences – which to me seem like the literal equivalent of constantly running into Cognitive Dissonance as if it were a person – have piqued my curiosity in the direction of wanting to understand this need to straitjacket ideas into binaries.

And, of also trying to understand where this seemingly default urge to not only plot and assign camps but to also be ‘right’ about them, stems from.

Yup, implicit in our cognitive bias is this need where we will go to any length to avoid finding out that we’re wrong (also known as the ‘challenge avoidance’) and we’ll go to any length to find out that we’re right (also known as ‘reinforcement seeking’). Which again is geared towards containing and even eliminating any cognitive dissonance by ignoring information by avoidance or actively seeking only a certain type of information by reinforcement.

Ergo, Elita is a solo traveller.

For me, the more important question is: What are the stories we tell ourselves about solo travel and solo travellers?

Is it that it’s for misanthropes?

Wrong. When you’re travelling by yourself, you are - by design - interacting with more people; all of who are near-perfect strangers to you.

That it’s for the alone and the friendless?

Also wrong. Alone does not mean friendless. Alone and lonely are not synonymous. Feeling lonely when you have company is possible.

What are the stories we tell ourselves about solo travel and solo travellers?

That solo travel is about finding yourself?

Unless we’re all now Elizabeth Gilbert from Eat, Pray, Love… it’s time to rest that trope and let go of the ‘lonely heart’ stigma too!

That it’s about quitting your job and travelling RTW?

For the love of god, can we stop quitting our jobs only for the sake of hashtag: wanderlust? If you must know, over the years, I have profiled 39 individuals on my blog - including mothers who travel with their tiny humans - who do what they do AND travel.

Yes, seemingly divergent narratives can and have and will continue to coexist.

I have met many others for whom – like me – the act of travelling has taken precedence, whether or not they’ve had company. I have travelled as a part of a group and had a solo traveller join our shenans mid-way. I’ve been a solo traveller and have had those travelling in groups willing to adopt me. And of course, there are those scenarios where I’ve been in a group and not liked it one bit in just the same way that there have been occasions where I’ve been travelling solo and hated just how hyper-aware I have needed to be!

The act of travelling has taken precedence whether or not I've had company

The fault in the stories we tell ourselves

Not until we have familiarised ourselves with the existence of our cognitive dissonance can we begin to stop making reactive decisions that leave us at the mercy of our cognitive biases. Because …and you would already know, this monologue isn’t about what type of traveller I am.

This is about how our personal and collective biases dominate almost every narrative. The news and political propaganda make for a fine example – which is evident from fact-checking organizations now having to work overtime!

But our confirmation bias is far more insidious than that. Which makes them difficult to detect, let alone nip in the bud. Our stereotypes form a significant portion of the stories we tell ourselves and in turn, reinforce all of our confirmation biases. Stereotypes are a near-perfect example since they feed off from as well as play into our confirmation biases.

Introverts are shy. Well, actually extroverts are also shy. Introverts, on the other hand, do not prefer as much external stimulation and conveniently enough that earns them the label of being shy. Shyness is a feeling of awkwardness, discomfort experienced usually in newer situations and environments.

Women are emotional. Well, men are emotional too and so is every gender. Emotions also play out in plant and animal kingdom – not in that anthropomorphic manner. We’re all designed to experience emotions. That emotions, other than joy, have been usually shamed and erased even from our vocabulary merits some scrutiny of its own.

Our confirmation bias is also one of the reasons why we stay put in our echo chambers, usually surrounded by voices of those who also share a similar social profile, a background, and even a surname like ours.

The Age of Filter Bubbles

Peter Wason and Cognitive Bias

Did you know that it was Peter Wason – a psychologist - who coined the term cognitive bias sometime around the 1960s when he testing the human tendency to confirm existing beliefs by ignoring disconfirming evidence?

To do this, Wason designed the 2-4-6 task where participants were told that the experimenter had a secret rule (or a question) in mind and that they – the participants – had to continue generating repetitive sequences to 2, 4, 6 …such that it complied with the secret rule, which would be revealed to them later.

Almost all the participants responded with an 8, 10, 12 followed by 14, 16, 18 which they were told was correct. So, when they, then had to guess what the secret rule governing these sequences was, the answer in the room was ‘increment by 2’ …which was incorrect! The actual rule was ‘any ascending number’ – which means that even ‘8, 11, 12’ and ’10, 13, 25’ would have been correct answers.

You see, none of the participants tested the secret question in a way where they were challenging their own preconceived notions which was that the sequence of 2, 4, 6 could only be followed by 8, 10, 12 and no other permutation or variation!

See what I mean when I say cognitive biases are insidious? Wason designed another test a few years later involving not only numbers but also alphabets and colours.

“the eyes see only what the mind is prepared to comprehend”

Moral of the story?

Given how we know that “the eyes see only what the mind is prepared to comprehend” which means that we are always likely to find any evidence we are looking for, could we counter our biases by re-asking and perhaps even re-framing the secret questions and rules themselves?

Maybe then we’d think of something like:

Characteristic traits of shy people (instead of ‘Introverts are shy’), and

Factors encouraging expression of emotions (instead of ‘Women are emotional’)

I personally find that sitting with these two questions, (i) ‘How reactive do I feel when my viewpoint is challenged?’, and (ii) ‘What would it mean if I was wrong?’, is a helpful place for me to begin examining my own confirmation biases. I owe much of this reasoning to the stories of Birbal and those from the Panchatantra, Jataka Tales, and even Aesop’s Fables for lighting up some of the filaments in my brain when I was a kid.

I guess it didn’t light up all of the filaments. Here’s a question that was posed to me in 2013 that I struggled to respond to.

I was asked: “Are you a traveller or a tourist?”

Which the asker of the question then answered themselves by saying: “Since you are travelling solo right now, you can’t be a tourist. So, you’re a traveller.”

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