“Making mental connections is our most crucial learning tool, the essence of human intelligence; to forge links; to go beyond the given; to see patterns, relationships, context” – Marilyn Ferguson, American writer
Travel decision-making from a behavioural geography perspective
I am a human geographer by training and my research in tourism is clearly shaped by my disciplinary background. Geographers are often interested in relationships between places, people or companies in order to understand the underlying patterns and to explain how the context or environment shapes human behaviour. More specifically, I apply a behavioural geography perspective in my research. Behavioural geography is an interdisciplinary field, strongly influenced by psychology, and focuses on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of human behaviour (Gold & Goodey, 1983; Walmsley & Lewis, 2014).
In my research on travel decision-making, behavioural geography helps me explain tourists’ travel behaviour as the outcome of a cognitive decision-making process which is itself influenced by their perceptions of the environment, their individual characteristics or personality traits as well as the context in which the decision takes place. To capture all aspects, I combine consumer behaviour methods to study individual decision-making processes (interview, survey, experiment) with economic geography methods to explain behavioural changes on an aggregated level.
Travel decision-making is embedded in layers of individual tourist attributes and social, spatial, and temporal context.
Tourism is a complex system of several interrelated contextual layers (Figure 1). First, travel behaviour is embedded in the individual attributes of a person (Li et al., 2020). Second, travel behaviour depends on the social context as travel decision-making is influenced by information from the social environment (e.g., Boavida-Portugal, Ferreira & Rocha, 2017). Third, travel behaviour can be explained by the spatial context (e.g., Jiao, Li & Chen, 2020), as the residential environment (urban/rural, access to airport) and economic or social regional disparities also influence this (Bernini, Cracolici & Nijkamp, 2017). Looking into all contextual layers at the same time with a quantitative approach is a challenge because each tourist can be influenced differently by each contextual layer. Qualitative approaches may be more suitable here. For example, in a qualitative study, we simultaneously demonstrated how all these contextual layers impact travel decision-making processes of people with disabilities (Pegg, Karl & Harpur, 2021).
Moreover, travel behaviour is time-variant and changes over the course of someone’s life (Karl, Reintinger & Schmude, 2015; Randle, Zhang & Dolnicar, 2019) and with increasing age (Huber, Milne & Hyde, 2018; Karl, Sie & Ritchie, 2021b), depending on external developments, such as terrorism, economic crises or a global pandemic (e.g., Karl, Winder & Bauer, 2017; Zenker & Kock, 2020) and between generations (e.g., McKercher, Lai, Yang & Wang, 2020). Analysing simultaneously these temporal effects to understand how travel decision-making is shaped by the temporal context is challenging – but possible if statistical knowledge and sufficient individual-level data is available (Weigert et al., 2021). A specific feature of travel decisions, in particular destination choices, is that they are negotiation processes between tourists’ needs and the destination offer (Bekk, Spörrle & Kruse, 2016). When applying a behavioural geography perspective to examine travel decision-making, we need to consider how tourists perceive their own needs and how a potential destination, accommodation or transport system can fulfil these needs. In my research, I advocate for a stronger consideration of these different contextual layers because travel decision-making cannot be seen as a process happening in a blank space or a vacuum of online surveys.
I am just starting my academic journey and my contributions are in a narrow research field linked to the broader research area of travel decision-making. While my main aim in research at the start of my journey was to better understand travel decision-making processes – focusing on risk and constraints, I have more recently started to translate this knowledge into ways that can change tourists’ behaviour in a positive way. In the following, I will outline my contributions and future research paths in both aspects.
Understanding travel decision-making – focusing on risk and constraints
Research on travel decision-making often focuses on specific influencing factors or contextual layers individually. Studies that integrate multiple factors, including destination attributes that influence travel behaviour, and consider travel decision-making as a multi-step cognitive process are rare. During my PhD, I developed an integrated approach to studying risk perception as part of the destination choice process that avoids several important ‘either-or’ decisions common to other studies in the field (Karl, 2018). Rather than investigating either intentional future or real destination choices, this study investigated how risk perception shapes hypothetical future, planned and executed holidays simultaneously. What I found was that people with varying attitudes towards risk differ substantially in their hypothetical dream holidays but when it comes to actual travel, most travel in the same way. Interestingly, the discrepancy between hypothetical and actual choices was also relevant for travel decision-making under the influence of constraints (Karl et al., 2020a; Karl, Sie & Ritchie, 2021b) and the familiarity of destinations (Karl, Reintinger & Schmude, 2015; Karl, Muskat & Ritchie, 2020c). We should therefore critically consider the conclusions we draw from studies on travel intentions because the context of the travel decision – being a hypothetical or actual choice – strongly influences the result. Instead of only examining behavioural intentions, tourism research needs to take a step forward towards measuring actual behaviour in the future.
Following the behavioural geography perspective, my integrated approach incorporated tourist and destination attributes to explain tourists’ travel decision-making in the context of risk (Karl, 2018). The integrated approach also did not force a decision regarding a self-assessment of travel decisions in relation to risk and a measurement of travel decisions based on objective indicators. I used a destination index based on Plog’s (1974) familiarity concept (Karl, Reintinger & Schmude, 2015) that allows to categorise all destinations in the choice process according to risk and uncertainty. By including the spatial and individual context layers, I was able to link subjective personal preferences and attitudes with an objective destination risk measurement. This approach revealed that people may think they are high-risk travellers, but the analysis of their actual travel behaviour showed no such tendencies. In fact, only crisis-resistant tourists, a very small part of the population, will actually travel to destinations with higher risk levels (Hajibaba, Gretzel, Leisch & Dolnicar, 2015). We should therefore be mindful when we draw conclusions from perceptions because they are often very biased – in particular when it comes to risk (Wolff, Larsen, & Øgaard, 2019).
From my focus on perceived risk as a potential barrier to travelling, I widened my research area to travel constraints more generally. Travel decision-making in the context of constraints is often investigated as one simple rational or one-time decision although tourism researchers suggest a dual system of travel decision-making (McCabe, Li & Chen, 2016). This builds on the idea of two brain systems, introduced by Economics Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman and Egan (2011) claim that people either make systematic rational or heuristic-driven decisions following an automatic or intuitive process. We found empirical evidence that tourists use both decision-making types by systematically analysing different types of travel decisions using actual travel behaviour data (Karl et al., 2020a). Understanding the dual decision-making processes in tourism can also explain tourists’ behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic: After a long period of supressed travel desires, people can either indulge in impulsive decisions following a heuristic-driven process or base their decisions on expected future consequences in a more rational process of intertemporal decision-making (Karl, Chien & Ong, 2020b). We should therefore reflect on which type of travel decision-making process is occurring in our specific case to better understand tourists’ behaviours.
Changing travel decisions – focusing on future thinking and emotions
Moving forward from simply understanding travel decision-making processes, I am now working on online and field interventions that build on this knowledge to change tourists’ behaviour. Two factors which seem promising in the context of tourism are future thinking (prospection) and emotions because travel decisions are about future experiences and highly pleasure-driven (Kock, Josiassen & Assaf, 2018). Marketing campaigns already use positive future emotions and implicitly assume that tourists are influenced by both factors during their decision-making process but research that explains why this is happening is rare.
Together with colleagues from Germany, Australia and Denmark, I explore the role of future thinking and emotions in travel decision-making. From studies in psychology, we know that emotions influence travel decision-making by means of cognition (Baumeister, Vohs, DeWall & Zhang, 2007). Consequently, our decisions are guided by how mental processes of emotional responses and not merely by how we experience an emotion directly. For example, people mentally pre-experience their holiday when they decide where or how to travel, and they use these mental images to estimate how they might feel in the future. The psychological process of predicting one’s future feelings, referred to as affective forecasting (Wilson & Gilbert, 2003), is known to influence many daily life decisions from simple decisions about what to eat for lunch (see next paragraph) to complex decisions on who to marry (e.g., ‘Will I be more happy if I marry Paul or Richard?’). Transferring this to tourism means that people base their decisions on how happy they expect to feel during a future holiday (anticipated emotion) and not on how they were currently feeling while thinking about the future holiday (anticipatory emotion). In our research, we demonstrate how affective forecasting can be used as a tool to influence tourists’ travel and accommodation decisions using the COVID-19 pandemic as a proof of concept (Karl et al., 2021a). We show that affective forecasting alleviates perceived risk and positively impacts travel decisions.
Future thinking and emotions can also be used to develop marketing and management strategies that help tourists unconsciously behave more environmentally friendly. We know that our decisions are often driven by what we expect to happen in the future. These positive or negative consequences can vary in their perceived temporal distance and the subjective value. Intertemporal decision-making theory states that we tend to focus on the immediate future but not long-term consequences when we make decisions and consequently value smaller immediate rewards more than later bigger rewards (see for a review Bulley & Schacter, 2020). This can be illustrated by a simple example from daily life: Imagine at lunch you can chose between a burger or a salad. One option (probably the burger) already makes your mouth water just thinking about it and you can imagine how much you will enjoy this meal. It will provide you a lot of immediate pleasure. But on the downside, the burger has more calories than the salad which affects your long-term health and meat is also not environmentally friendly leading to negative long-term impacts for the environment. The other option might not be as pleasurable to think about but has opposing positive long-term impacts. Most often in daily life – and particularly in a pleasure-focused context such as in restaurants (Biermann & Rau, 2020) – we chose the option that gives us immediate pleasure.
Overall, I hope that if we better understand the intertemporality of travel decision-making, we can design more effective interventions for the tourism and hospitality industry that can reduce tourists’ environmental impacts.
Without my wonderful colleagues in Germany, Israel, Australia and Denmark and the support of the German Research Foundation (DFG) on several of my projects (SCHM 850/20-1, SCHM 850/20-2, KA 4976/1-1, KA 4976/2-1) these contributions to tourism research would not have happened. I am very grateful for their support.
Written by Marion Karl, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany
Read Marion’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers
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