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).”