Sharing experiences, even from afar, can bring people closer

Alice G. Walton | Dec 08, 2020

As social creatures, people tend to want to experience good times—and get through the tough times—in the presence of others, since it makes us feel more connected. 

But we also prefer to experience separate events, good or bad, at the same time, suggest University of California at Los Angeles’ Franklin Shaddy and University of Florida’s Yanping Tu, both recent graduates of the Chicago Booth PhD Program, and Booth’s Ayelet Fishbach. For example, knowing that your friend is having a root canal on the same day as you may make it feel like a shared experience—and make it a little easier to handle. 

In one study, the researchers arranged for participants, all UCLA students, to receive a personalized video message from a local celebrity, the school’s men’s basketball coach. Each participant then had to choose a friend to receive a similar message, and decide whether the message should be sent on the same day or a different day. Almost all participants, 88 percent, wanted the video message sent on the same day, supporting a hypothesis the researchers refer to as a desire for temporal “integration.”

And the research suggests people would prefer this kind of coordinated experience with a friend, but wouldn’t care to have two events happen simultaneously to themselves. In another experiment, Shaddy, Tu, and Fishbach asked participants to consider a pair of events, such as winning $50 and $100 in an office lottery. Some participants were asked about winning both awards themselves (the self-self condition)—would they prefer to win the two prizes on the same day or different days? But others were asked about a situation where they win $50 and their friend wins $100 (the self-other condition). Again, would they want the wins to occur on the same day or different days? 

Participants wanted to experience an event on the same day as a friend—but when it was a matter of experiencing two events on their own, they didn’t care as much whether the events happened on the same day, the researchers find. The same trend was on display when the researchers modified the circumstances, making the monetary amounts larger or smaller and considering both wins and losses. Participants showed a consistent preference for experiencing similar-but-separate events on the same day as other people, but the preference was weaker when they didn’t share the experience. 

A desire to connect with other people drives the phenomenon, the research indicates. In follow-up experiments, the desire for integration faded when participants were asked to think of a person they disliked. And the wish for integration diminished when events were more emotionally charged, such as when large sums of money were involved. The researchers suggest that people may prefer different timing for interpersonal events “when their co-occurrence would overwhelm their capacity to fully savor gains and buffer losses.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to physically separate, but this work suggests that many of the same benefits of experiencing events with others in person can manifest even when the events happen at the same time rather than in the same place. For example, in summer 2020, many organized races switched to a virtual format whereby runners started at the same time on the same day (as in previous years) but ran alone, in different locations. A New York Times article explained that these races exploded in popularity because runners could “still feel as if they’re part of a larger group.” 

Luckily for those socially distancing, it turns out that doing things at the same time as others can increase social connection, just as doing things in the same place as others does.