What is the effect of shared experiences? Many common situations, such as watching films, involve the presence of others. In these situations, people may silently communicate their feelings through their posture, facial expressions, and gestures. As a result of this nonverbal communication, people may begin to feel in sync with their companions in the shared experience- or vastly out of step. Furthermore, this awareness of the other person's feelings may influence reactions as the experience unfolds- which may enhance or diminish an individual's enjoyment of the experience.
In the new study "Consuming with Others: Social Influences on Moment-to-Moment and Retrospective Evaluations of an Experience," University of Chicago Graduate School of Business professors Suresh Ramanathan and Ann L. McGill analyze why it feels different to share a "consumption experience" with another person than to consume alone.
Two people who share a consumption experience (taking value from a product or service) may influence each other's ongoing evaluations through processes of mimicry and "emotional contagion," in which moods transfer between people. People seated next to each other in a theater, for example, may be able to see each other smile or grimace, sit up with interest, or slouch in boredom.
"Emotional contagion refers to the phenomenon whereby people catch each other's emotions," says Ramanathan. "If I see you smiling, I will tend to mimic the smile. As a result, I catch the same feeling and start to feel happier from seeing you smile."
Shared experiences may lead to greater enjoyment particularly if people have similar reactions to the experience. The result is a state of rapport, characterized by the mutual interest that develops when nonverbal expressive behavior between two people is in agreement.
Using two lab experiments, Ramanathan and McGill examined differences in participant's moment-to-moment and summary evaluations of an experience depending on whether they were alone or in the presence of another person.
In the first experiment, participants viewed a short film alone, with another person whom they could not see, or with another person whose facial expressions and body posture they could see.
In the second experiment, the authors videotaped participants as they watched a film with another person in order to gather direct evidence for mimicry of expression and its effects on participants' evaluations of the experience.
The results indicate that moment-to-moment evaluations by participants who could observe each other's expressions moved together over broad time intervals. Participants evaluated specific elements of each film according to idiosyncratic likes and dislikes, but over a broader range, participants' evaluations moved up and down together in a shared rhythm, reflecting a more global sense of agreement about the experience.
"The highlight of our paper is the idea that feelings of connectedness over the duration of an experience can have an independent effect on a person's enjoyment of an experience," says McGill.
The results support and explain a familiar sensation: consuming with others feels different. Watching a movie with another person produces different moment-to-moment judgments and changes the basis on which the quality of the movie will later be judged.
Furthermore, this pattern of judgment emerges in a subtle fashion over a long time frame rather than a short time frame. The results suggest that when later asked if an experience was positive, the evaluation may depend on the extent to which the consumer was indeed moving in quiet tandem with the other person.
Ramanathan and McGill argue that emotional contagion may manifest itself in a shared pattern of peoples' moment-tomoment evaluations of an experience. The dynamically entwined moods may color their reactions to the experience, leading to a similar pattern of ups and downs in their moment-to-moment assessments.
The first experiment tested two questions: 1) whether the presence of another person made a difference to the moment-to-moment evaluation of that experience; and 2) whether the presence of another person affected the subsequent evaluation of the experience.
A group of undergraduate students from the University of Chicago participated in the first experiment. Students were assigned to single-person sessions or two-person sessions. Half of the pairs were assigned to the "mere social presence" condition (seated together but divided by partition), while the other half to the "full social presence" condition (seated together without partition).
In the lab, participants watched a short video clip, a Celebrity Jeopardy Skit from "Saturday Night Live," and recorded their instantaneous reactions to the video by continuously moving a joystick, pushing the lever to the left if they didn't like the video at the moment or to the right if they liked the video at the moment. A sliding scale showed the evaluation on screen (0 = "dislike very much" and 10 = "like very much"). The joystick tracked the participants' reactions per second, providing a measure of their experience over time. After watching the video, participants evaluated the program and their intent to watch it or a similar program again.
To analyze the results, the authors used two dependent measures: 1) what an individual's moment-to-moment pattern of reactions looks like; and 2) how much the participant liked the film when asked subsequently.
The authors used a statistical technique called cross-spectral analysis to look for underlying shared patterns in a timeseries of movements in participants' emotions. This technique allowed the authors to see where participants were in sync in terms of their responses to the video.
"We find that if you watched the film alone, your pattern of emotional responses over time was different than if you watched it with someone else, but only if you could see the other person's face," notes McGill. Ramanathan adds, "If there is a match between what you feel and what I feel in that instant, that has an impact on how both of us feel afterwards."
Evaluations by participants who could observe each other appeared to fluctuate in a shared rhythm over longer intervals of time; in this case, for more than 30 seconds. In contrast, participants who could not observe each other did not move together any more than those who viewed the video alone.
The results of the first experiment are consistent with processes of mimicry and emotional contagion. There is a distinct difference between being in the same viewing environment but unable to see each other's expressions (the "mere presence" condition) and actually being able to observe each other.
"People didn't laugh together for every joke, but over a broader range of 30 seconds to 5 minutes, people started to flow together," says McGill.
To obtain direct evidence of mimicry and contagion, the authors secretly videotaped pairs of participants as they watched a short film together and noted participants' facial expressions, body postures, and instances of glancing at each other.
In the second experiment, Ramanathan and McGill only used the "mere presence" and "full presence" conditions. A critical factor in emotional contagion may be whether or not the other person is looking when the emotion is expressed. The authors measured emotional contagion by the extent to which one participant looked at the other while each of them was expressing emotions during the experience. The study also considered whether the look was reciprocated or not and whether the emotions at the time of a reciprocated look matched.
In this experiment, undergraduates at the University of Chicago signed up for one of several two-person sessions in a lab. Half were assigned to the "mere presence" condition, half to the "full presence" condition. As in the first experiment, the height of the partition between the two computers determined whether participants could see each other's faces and upper bodies or not. Participants watched the prizewinning amateur short film from atomfilm.com called "Clean-up on Aisle Five."
As in the first experiment, participants moved joysticks continuously to indicate their reaction to the film. After watching the film, participants were asked to evaluate the video, their feelings and emotions as they watched the film, how aware they were of the other person, and how much they felt in sync with the other person.
The results suggest that mutual gazes among observing pairs increased the degree to which the pair were in sync emotionally. Findings from this experiment provide direct evidence that emotional contagion occurred among pairs of participants who could observe each other's expressions, but not for those who were unable to see each other. In the conditions of the study, contagion appeared to result from participants' reinforcing a shared expression.
Results further indicate that the process that produces greater contagion of emotional expression "shared looks" also predicts the degree to which the participants' evaluations broadly move together. Global agreement results from participants' both looking at each other from time to time throughout the experience. Being able to see the other person aligned participants' reactions and this greater alignment of feelings improved participants' overall evaluation of the experience.
"People have a need for belonging, so the more rapport you have with another person, the better you'll feel," says McGill. "When someone reflects on the quality of a film, they may remember the source of good feeling as the movie itself; whereas the real source of the positive feeling may be rapport."
Designing Consumption Experiences
In order for marketers to understand the big picture, Ramanathan and McGill suggest that consumer satisfaction should be measured on a group as well as an individual level.
"Most metrics of customer satisfaction are individualcentric and ignore the fact that many experiences with products and services are actually jointly consumed," says Ramanathan. "Our research indicates that people might evaluate products or services differently depending on whether they consumed it alone or with someone else."
The authors note that the United States is largely a servicesdriven economy. In recent decades, there has been a cultural and economic shift from selling goods to selling services to selling experiences. Even retailers strive to make their stores "destinations," offering consumers a positive shopping and entertainment experience, not just physical sources of goods. Furthermore, many products, such as video games and Internet devices, offer consumers experiences that develop over time and that can be shared with others.
"When designing experiences, such as shopping malls, concerts, or theme parks, it's important to create conditions where people can actually observe and subtly interact with each other," says Ramanathan. "What you want to do is facilitate people being able to see each other; to pause and share glances."
"We should have been studying people consuming together all along, but tractable methodology and the statistics to do so weren't available before," says McGill. "We can now document the shared influence, both how and why people influence each other. The exciting part is to show that our judgment of experiences is influenced by the rapport we felt with someone else."
McGill adds, "We've put the social back in social psychology. We're studying people in the world the way they live it, which is being connected with someone else, and seeing how that influences our likes and dislikes."
Suresh Ramanathan is associate professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.
Ann L. McGillis Sears Roebuck Professor of General Management, Marketing, and Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.