Imagine you are with some friends at a concert, and the bouncer approaches the group and says that, because you are all looking so ravishing tonight, he’s been instructed to offer one of you—just one!—a backstage pass to meet the artist. Do you raise your hand? For most people, this would be a no-brainer: who wouldn’t leap at the chance to meet a famous singer or secure a long-sought autograph? The results of a recent study, published in Psychological Science by Gus Cooney, Daniel Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson, however, suggest taking a second’s pause before snapping up that backstage pass.
Cooney, Gilbert, and Wilson suspected that extraordinary experiences—like meeting a musical idol—carry hidden costs. They hypothesized that, while such occurrences undoubtedly make us happier in the moment, they also risk separating us from our peers, leading to a sense of isolation so unpleasant as to outweigh whatever enjoyment they initially confer.
To test this idea, the researchers recruited subjects in groups of four and had them watch a video clip. Of the group, three were told that they would watch a clip that previous viewers had given a 2-star rating; the remaining subject, by contrast, was granted the opportunity to view a special 4-star clip. After watching the videos, all four subjects were given some time to talk amongst themselves, and then each reported on their general happiness.
Normally, we might expect the 4-star subject to feel the happiest. After all, this was the lucky individual who had seen the “extraordinary” video while the others—poor suckers—had had to suffer through a bad one. The reality, though, was just the opposite: those who’d seen the “better” clip actually felt worse than their peers. Why? The data suggested that these people—the “extraordinary experiencers”—had felt so excluded from the post-viewing conversation that any thrill they’d gotten from the video itself was utterly erased. This would be as if, while you went backstage to fawn over your favorite artist, your friends traipsed off to a bar and developed a hilarious inside joke.
This study suggests that the hedonic value we glean from experiences stems not so much from the immediate pleasure they bestow but from the subsequent joy we take in reliving them with others. For many of us, the stories we tell, like those in Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” accrue, through their retelling, added layers of richness unattainable if experienced alone.
At a broader level, the study also demonstrates the deep social contingency of our understanding of the world. Everything we do and see is interpreted through our interactions with others. This social embeddedness is so complete, in fact, that our company shapes not just our experiences after they have taken place, but also while they’re occurring—a point which is demonstrated vividly in a separate study published in the same issue of Psychological Science. This study, conducted by Erica Boothby, Margaret Clark, and John Bargh, examines the power of “shared experience,” showing that the mere feeling of togetherness is sufficient to amplify the perceived intensity of sensations like the flavor of chocolate.
In a cleverly designed experiment, the researchers asked that subjects sit at a table with a partner and rate two chocolate bars. Unbeknownst to them, the “partner” was actually a confederate—someone in cahoots with the scientists. Subjects tasted one of the chocolate bars simultaneously with the partner, the other while the partner was otherwise occupied. (Pains were taken to ensure that people couldn’t see each others’ responses.)
Which of the two chocolate bars was tastier? According to the subjects, one of the bars was significantly more flavorful than the other—and more enjoyable overall. Here’s the rub, though: the bars were identical. The only difference was that subjects had tasted one of the bars—the more “flavorful” one—at the same time as their partner.
This study demonstrates the power of togetherness to change basic qualities of experiences. Note this is not because company makes all experiences better—but rather because it makes them more extreme: in a subsequent experiment, the researchers showed that co-experience renders bitter flavors worse. The sense of being together seems thus to heighten both the pleasure of the positive and the nastiness of the negative.
Like bits of matter floating in space, humans cluster into communities. These communities serve several purposes: they offer protection and security, they provide resources both physical and emotional, and they give a sense of meaning and belonging. They also hold an arguably even greater power: to actively influence the way we interpret the world. The most dazzling firework can seem muted if viewed alone; the most unremarkable vista inspiring with good friends. Being with others adds a Technicolor tinge to the drab mundanity of daily life. It would seem, then, that the best way to go about choosing your next concert should be to focus not on the fame of the headliner but on the quality of the company.