Why repeat experiences are underrated

Andrew Clark | Sep 25, 2019

Next time you pick a movie to watch, consider one you’ve watched before. Research by Chicago Booth’s Ed O’Brien suggests that repeat experiences are more pleasurable than people expect them to be—and can be just as enjoyable, or more so, than entirely new experiences.

Past research has suggested that when it comes to leisure activities, people are intuitively drawn to new experiences. O’Brien’s research probed the subject further, finding that people also explicitly avoid repeating experiences—an aversion that he argues is due to a misperception of how little they’ll enjoy the repetition. 

O’Brien conducted a series of seven experiments. In three of them, participants completed a leisure activity once—either visiting a museum exhibit, watching a movie, or playing a video game—and reported their enjoyment of it. Then some participants were asked to predict how much they’d enjoy repeating the same activity they’d just experienced, while others actually repeated the activities and reported their enjoyment. In some cases, enjoyment of the activity among those who actually experienced repetition declined somewhat, and in other cases it didn’t, but in every case, the predictors significantly overestimated how much repeating the activity would weigh on the enjoyment of it.

The expectation that a repeated experience will be less enjoyable is so strong that people will make sacrifices to avoid it. In one study, which involved participants watching short virtual walking tours of cities, some viewers were asked after the first tour whether they wanted to rewatch that city’s tour or watch a tour of a new city. Ninety-two percent of the sample opted for a new city—and most were willing to give up, on average, 12 percent of their study-participation payment to avoid rewatching a tour. 

Granted, the offer to trade earnings for novelty carries the underlying implication that repetition is undesirable and could have pushed some participants to pay up to avoid a dull experience. But if that were true, the offer would have prompted the few people who opted to rewatch the tour to change their minds—and it didn’t.

So why are repeated experiences more enjoyable than we expect? Two of O’Brien’s experiments suggest it’s because they’re not repeated exactly: each time you rewatch a movie, revisit a museum, or reread a book, you discover new aspects of it that make the experience at least partially novel. In contrast, when you imagine repeating an experience, your mind simply replays the same old experience again and again.

The results are relevant beyond one’s choice of leisure activities. O’Brien points out that students may skip a class because they have already heard a particular lecture or learned a concept, and by skipping it, they miss the opportunity of continued learning that their attendance might promote. 

“These findings . . . remind us that the past may sometimes feel just as ‘new,’ and as enjoyable, as the future—at least, not as dull as it plays out in one’s mind,” O’Brien writes. “Repetition too could add an unforeseen spice to life.”