A common, low-stakes living-room scenario: A couple is trying to decide on a movie to watch. There’s an option one-half of the relationship is thrilled about, but the other has already seen it. On those grounds, it’s ruled out.
But a new study suggests that this notion that having already seen it—or read it, done it, visited it—automatically precludes a second go-around might be mistaken. Repeating something, it turns out, “may turn out to be less dull than people think,” writes Ed O’Brien, the author of the study and a behavioral-science professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
In one experiment, O’Brien and his research team approached people near an exhibit on genetics at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, asking them to rate how much they enjoyed the exhibit and how much they think they’d enjoy perusing it again. While the subjects tended to predict that the exhibit would be less fun the second time around, the ones who did another walkthrough at the researchers’ request rated it roughly as enjoyable as the first. In other words, the museumgoers, as a group, underestimated how much they would like doing the same thing twice.
Museums are a useful example for understanding O’Brien’s underlying finding about why the familiar may be more satisfying than people expect. Perhaps it’s the case, O’Brien notes in the study, that some underrated satisfaction comes from already knowing a place well—maybe the museum’s collection felt overwhelming on the first visit, but manageable on the second. Or perhaps one might happen upon corners of the museum that went overlooked in the first pass. O’Brien found stronger support for this second idea: People can underrate the novelty lurking within things they thought they’d already experienced fully.
In another experiment, O’Brien’s team had research subjects watch a movie on Netflix that they hadn’t seen before and thought they’d enjoy. Then, on the following night, the researchers had some of them watch the same movie again. The group that didn’t watch it a second night in a row rated the enjoyment they would have had rewatching it at an average of roughly 3.5 on a seven-point scale, which was lower than the 5.3 they gave to watching the movie the first time. But the group that did watch the movie a second time gave the experience a 4.5 on average.
These discrepancies illustrate O’Brien’s finding well. It’s not that watching a movie for the second time in 24 hours is just as enjoyable as the first time—it probably won’t be. But it does seem likely to be more pleasant than one would predict.
In general, psychological and behavioral-economics research has found that when people make decisions about what they think they’ll enjoy, they often assign priority to unfamiliar experiences—such as a new book or movie, or traveling somewhere they’ve never been before. They are not wrong to do so: People generally enjoy things less the more accustomed to them they become. As O’Brien writes, “People may choose novelty not because they expect exceptionally positive reactions to the new option, but because they expect exceptionally dull reactions to the old option.” And sometimes, that expected dullness might be exaggerated.
Knowing that expectations can sometimes deviate from reality in this way could help inform the decisions people make about how they spend their leisure time. “I think the biggest application of the finding is for people to spend more time considering why they prefer a novel option over a repeat option,” O’Brien wrote to me in an email. Doing so could save them time and might make them just as happy. “Before getting caught in a one-hour Google rabbit hole for ‘best tacos near me,’ it might help to consider the possible value of simply returning to the great taco place from yesterday (and trying new things [on the menu]),” he added.
O’Brien told me that doing this research has changed how he’s approached some everyday decisions. “If my goal is to relax for a bit,” he wrote, “I'm more [likely] to consider spending that time jumping right in to something I know I already love, rather than waste half that window of time searching for something new (which might turn out [to be] just okay anyway).”
Some types of experiences may be better candidates for this way of thinking than others—“watching paint dry will not unveil new colors,” as O’Brien puts it in his paper. For instance, complexity could be a factor; things that “contain too much information to encode at first pass,” such as a book or an expansive museum, might warrant a repeat experience. (If a novel has a big plot twist, say, it might be pleasurable to notice all the clues leading up to it during a reread.)
An entire category of people seems to have caught on to this way of thinking: little kids. Many of them will gladly rewatch the same movies, read the same books, and sing the same songs ad infinitum. “Young children may have yet to develop the capacities designed to help adults navigate increasingly complex informational environments,” O’Brien speculates in the paper. Perhaps they haven’t yet figured out how to accurately assess the value of novelty. Or perhaps they’re correctly assessing the value still to be found in the familiar, and just haven’t yet been socialized to see repetition as symbolizing stagnation and dullness.
In all likelihood, the kids don’t have it fully right—while they might enjoy the 50th viewing of Frozen just as much as or more than the first, their parents don’t necessarily feel the same—but maybe there is some wisdom in their behavior. The current cultural landscape can make it hard to resist the pull of the novel. High-quality TV shows are being produced at a rate faster than they could feasibly be consumed (to say nothing of movies, books, and other forms of entertainment), Google makes it easy to find best-of lists for nearly everything, and social media serves up constant examples of the awesome things your friends are doing that you haven’t tried yet. This can be overwhelming, and a one-and-done mentality might be, as O’Brien suggests in his paper, “a welcome adaptation for easing cognitive load,” something that helps people justify moving on to the next thing. But when they do choose to move on, they might be underrating what’s already in front of them.