"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Trying to share our “epic” moments may cost us

Oct. 6, 2014
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

You might want to think twice be­fore talk­ing about that ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence—that time we climbed Mt. Kil­i­man­ja­ro, got to taste a rare wine, or ran in­to a celebr­ity on the street.

Con­versa­t­ions thrive on or­di­nary top­ics, and peo­ple who share ex­cep­tion­al ex­pe­ri­ences in­stead may wind up feel­ing left out, psy­chol­o­gists are sug­gest­ing based on new re­search pub­lished in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

“Ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ences are pleas­ur­a­ble in the mo­ment but can leave us so­cially worse off in the long run,” said psy­chol­o­gist and study au­thor Gus Cooney of Har­vard Uni­vers­ity. “The par­ti­ci­pants in our study mis­tak­enly thought that hav­ing an ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence would make them the star of the con­versa­t­ion. But they were wrong, be­cause to be ex­tra­or­di­nary is to be dif­fer­ent than oth­er peo­ple, and so­cial in­ter­ac­tion is grounded in si­m­i­lar­i­ties.”

Cooney and co-au­thors were in­ter­est­ed in ex­plor­ing the con­se­quenc­es of ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ences based on his own en­coun­ters with oth­ers.

“We all ap­pre­ci­ate ex­pe­ri­ences that are fi­ne and rare, and when we get what we want, we’re al­ways ea­ger to tell our friends. But I’ve no­ticed that con­versa­t­ions al­ways seem to thrive on more or­di­nary top­ics,” Cooney ex­plains. “This made me won­der if there might be times when ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ences have more costs than ben­e­fits, and wheth­er peo­ple know what those times are.”

Cooney and col­leagues had 68 par­ti­ci­pants come to the lab in groups of four. In each group, one par­ti­ci­pant was as­signed to watch a highly-rated “4-star” vi­deo of a street ma­gi­cian per­form­ing for a crowd, while the oth­er three par­ti­ci­pants were as­signed to watch a lower-rated “2-star” an­i­mat­ed vid­e­o, and they were all aware of each oth­er’s vi­deo as­sign­ments. Af­ter watch­ing the vid­e­os, the par­ti­ci­pants sat around a ta­ble for a five-minute un­struc­tured con­versa­t­ion.

The par­ti­ci­pants who watched the 4-star vid­e­o, the “ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­encers,” re­ported feel­ing worse af­ter the group dis­cus­sion than did the oth­ers, due to a great­er feel­ing of ex­clu­sion, the au­thors re­ported. Ad­di­tion­al da­ta, they added, sug­gest that ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ences may feel worse be­cause they don’t an­ti­cipate the so­cial costs of hav­ing an ex­pe­ri­ence that sep­a­rates them from the group.

Par­ti­ci­pants in two ad­di­tion­al stud­ies were asked to im­ag­ine how ei­ther they or anoth­er per­son would feel as an ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­encer tak­ing part in the first stu­dy. As ex­pected, they mis­tak­enly pre­dicted that the per­son who had the ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence would feel bet­ter than the or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­encers through­out the whole ex­pe­ri­ment. Not only that, they pre­dicted that they would talk more dur­ing the post-movie dis­cus­sion, and would not feel ex­clud­ed.

“If an ex­pe­ri­ence turns you in­to some­one who has noth­ing in com­mon with oth­ers, then no mat­ter how good it was, it won’t make you hap­py in the long run,” Cooney said.

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You might want to think twice before talking about that extraordinary experience—that time we climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, got to taste a rare wine, or ran into a celebrity on the street. Conversations thrive on ordinary topics, and people who share exceptional experiences instead may wind up feeling left out, psychologists are suggesting based on new research published in the journal Psychological Science. “Extraordinary experiences are pleasurable in the moment but can leave us socially worse off in the long run,” said psychologist scientist and study author Gus Cooney of Harvard University. “The participants in our study mistakenly thought that having an extraordinary experience would make them the star of the conversation. But they were wrong, because to be extraordinary is to be different than other people, and social interaction is grounded in similarities.” Cooney and co-authors were interested in exploring the consequences of extraordinary experiences based on his own encounters with others. “We all appreciate experiences that are fine and rare, and when we get what we want, we’re always eager to tell our friends. But I’ve noticed that conversations always seem to thrive on more ordinary topics,” Cooney explains. “This made me wonder if there might be times when extraordinary experiences have more costs than benefits, and whether people know what those times are.” Cooney and colleagues had 68 participants come to the lab in groups of four. In each group, one participant was assigned to watch a highly-rated “4-star” video of a street magician performing for a crowd, while the other three participants were assigned to watch a lower-rated “2-star” animated video, and they were all aware of each other’s video assignments. After watching the videos, the participants sat around a table for a five-minute unstructured conversation. The participants who watched the 4-star video, the “extraordinary experiencers,” reported feeling worse after the group discussion than did the others, due to a greater feeling of exclusion, the authors reported. Additional data, they added, suggest that extraordinary experiences may feel worse because they don’t anticipate the social costs of having an experience that separates them from the group. Participants in two additional studies were asked to imagine how either they or another person would feel as an extraordinary experiencer taking part in the first study. As expected, they mistakenly predicted that the person who had the extraordinary experience would feel better than the ordinary experiencers throughout the whole experiment. Not only that, they predicted that they would talk more during the post-movie discussion, and would not feel excluded. “If an experience turns you into someone who has nothing in common with others, then no matter how good it was, it won’t make you happy in the long run.”