The Importance of Sharing Experiences

Two new studies suggest that extraordinary adventures are overrated—unless you have them with someone else.

Revelers kiss each other during the annual "Tomatina" tomato fight in Bunol, Spain. (Alberto Saiz/AP)

Given the choice between going to a bar with Jessica Alba and going to a bar with our same group of friends, most of us would probably pick the date with the onetime “Sexiest Woman in the World” and impresario of eco-friendly baby-products. But perhaps we should rethink that choice and opt for another night of beers with the gang.

A recent study in Psychological Science suggests that unusual experiences have a social cost, in that they alienate us from our peers. “Extraordinary experiences are both different from and better than the experiences that most other people have,” the authors note, “and being both alien and enviable is an unlikely recipe for popularity.”

To test this hypothesis, the researchers treated a group of university students to a movie screening. The 68 participants each reported to the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory and were broken into groups of four. One person from each group was sent to a cubicle to watch an interesting video of a talented street magician performing tricks for an appreciative crowd. The other three were assigned to watch a mundane clip of a low-budget cartoon. Everyone was told whether they were assigned to watch the boring video or the interesting one.

Afterward, each foursome was led to a room and told, to quote Coffee Talk, to “talk amongst yourselves.” The researcher left the room, and he returned five minutes later.

He gave the subjects another survey, this one consisting of two questions: “How do you feel right now?” on the same 100-point scale, as well as “How did you feel during the interaction that took place?” on a scale of 100 between “excluded” and “included.”

Surprisingly, people who watched the “extraordinary” video felt worse than those who watched the “ordinary” one by about 10 points. They also felt more excluded by 30 points on average.

Participants' Predicted and Actual Feelings
Psychological Science

“Conversations thrive on ordinary topics,” Gus Cooney, a Harvard Ph.D. student and the study’s lead author, told me. “The guy who had the extraordinary experience had a harder time fitting in.”

So why, then, would we ever choose to go sky-diving or Icelandic volcano-spelunking? Why would anyone pursue unusual encounters if banal ones make for better chit-chat? The authors performed another experiment in which they asked a new group of participants to picture themselves going through the two different conditions—watching either the magician video or the cartoon one and then talking with others. They were asked to score how they thought they would feel during the conversation.

“Participants expected an extraordinary experience to leave them feeling better than an ordinary experience at all points in time,” the authors wrote. In other words, we think seeing or doing amazing things will make us feel better than people who haven't; it actually makes us feel worse.

The authors speculate that this might be because the joy from an unusual experience fades quickly, but the sting of not fitting in because we didn’t share an experience with our peers—even a crappy one—lingers.

“A hallmark of the nonsocial pleasures—whether the cool tingle of Dom Pérignon or the hot snarl of a new Maserati—is that people adapt to them quickly, which is why such experiences are typically best when they are novel or rare,” Cooney and his co-authors, Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert and University of Virginia’s Timothy Wilson, write. “The social pleasures have a different appeal. People crave acceptance, belonging, and camaraderie, and the hallmark of these pleasures is that they come more readily to those who fit in than to those who stand out.”

People who had extraordinary experiences, meanwhile, had “little in common” with those who had run-of-the-mill experiences, and the resulting combination of strangeness, jealousy, and abnormality caused the extraordinary people to feel left out. In other words, you had to be there. Apparently, though, we don’t anticipate the social rejection that might ensue when we try to regale our acquaintances with stories from our trek across New Zealand.

So how does this jive with past research showing that we should spend our money on experiences, not things? It doesn’t exactly mean that we shouldn’t seek novelty. Cooney suggests the study should just encourage “people to look before they leap. When we're choosing what experiences we have, [this shows] we're only thinking about the benefits, not the social costs.”

The study could also be read not as a criticism of adventures, but as a defense of celebrating the mundane.

The findings are echoed in another recent Psychological Science study that found that sharing experiences—even with a complete stranger—makes people rate those experiences as more intense than people who underwent them alone. In that experiment, students reported liking a square of 70-percent dark chocolate more when they ate it at the same time as another study participant. They said the chocolate was more “flavorful” than those who ate it alone. This holds for negative experiences, too: Those who ate a square of 90-percent dark chocolate—shown in pre-tests to be unpleasant—rated it as less tasty when they ate it at the same time as someone else.

"When people think of shared experience, what usually comes to mind is being with close others, such as friends or family, and talking with them," study author Erica Boothby said in a statement. "We don't realize the extent to which we are influenced by people around us."

Together, the studies show why people bond over first-date horror stories or awkward middle-school memories. Or why, upon returning from a great vacation, we’re often more likely to dish to friends about the inept tour guide or inedible hotel breakfast, rather than the mesmerizing sights. In social interactions, people aim for relatability, not impressiveness. More important than having undergone something, it seems, is having someone understand.