THE BLOG
05/21/2014 02:45 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

Why L.A. Locals Are Terrible Tour Guides

A few summers ago, I took my girlfriend to my Californian home. I wanted her to love California, so I took to her to the special unknown, off-the-beaten path places I love. Unfortunately this was a mistake and it was due to my "local bias": the idea that a lot of repeated experience with an item like a city can actually make us ill-suited to guiding novices with that item.

I discovered my own personal local bias a few nights into our trip when I was walking with my girlfriend down Hollywood Boulevard. A warm summer breeze followed us down the street as I pointed out all my favorite little stores, cafes, and little theaters. I dismissed attractions like the Kodak Theater, saying things like, "That's just the place where they film American Idol." We then passed the Chinese Theater, where I didn't bother to stop. I kept walking on into the night. Then suddenly, I found myself walking alone.

I turned around and saw that my girlfriend was entranced by the Chinese Theater's patio. As she gazed at all the handprints and signatures immortalized into the cement, I called after her, "You don't want to do this. Come on, that is what tourists do." And then it hit me: she was a tourist! And I was a terrible tourist guide.

Yes, it was fun for her to go to my favorite little café, play on Santa Monica Beach's adult-sized playground, and take a walk up the old stairways through Silver Lake, but what really made her happy was the Hollywood Sign and the Chinese Theater. For me, all these tourist things were boring. I'd seen them countless times. But for someone experiencing them for the first time, they were magical and fun.

After I explained my experiences to my psychology colleagues, we set off to understand this idea of "local bias." So over a number experiments conducted now published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we repeatedly exposed some people to stimuli such as pop culture images, jokes, and even in one experiment a painful noise. Over and over again they experience the same thing. We then asked these people to predict how other people would react to encountering each experience for the first time.

So how'd our repeatedly exposed people do predicting novice's feelings? Not very well. Like me in Hollywood, the repeatedly exposed participants vastly underestimated how impressive, funny, or interesting the experience would be for a novice. They erroneously used their current feelings about the content (e.g., "I currently find this joke/audio/building boring") to predict how first-timers would react. In the end, repeatedly exposed participants were worse at picking activities for novices to enjoy when compared with participants who had more moderate experience (e.g. had only small amount of exposure to a joke).

So are experienced locals good or terrible guides? This is a nuanced question. When it comes to factual questions about the best routes through traffic, scoring cheap local theater tickets, and knowing all possible activities, a well-experienced local is undoubtedly the person you should trust. We're all pretty much great when dealing with questions about the facts about our hometown. For instance, us L.A. local know our freeways! But when it comes to questions about how much a novice would actually enjoy each activity, us lifelong locals might be surprisingly (and inadvertently) biased.

When we make decisions for our out of town guests, we often accidentally replace the question of "What would they enjoy?" with "What do I enjoy?" Accordingly, when our friends come to visit us, we need to take steps to look beyond ourselves. Sometimes, looking at tourists guide books can be a better way to get a sense of what our tourist guests will actually like, than using our own feelings as a guide.

So, next time I am guiding tourists around California, I'll suck it up and take them to all the iconic places, and probably read a tourist book. It may not be how I would choose to experience my hometown, but sometimes we need to let tourists be tourists.

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Troy Campbell, a homegrown Southern California is currently a researcher at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business and the Duke Center for Advanced Hindsight. If you liked this article you may also enjoy Troy's takes on The Best Conversation Starter and The Wonders of a West-Coast Winter.