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To Intensify an Experience, Bring a Friend

New research finds shared experiences are heightened, even when the people involved aren't communicating with one another.
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Communication not necessary. (Photo: withGod/Shutterstock)

Communication not necessary. (Photo: withGod/Shutterstock)

It happens all the time: You call a friend and make a date to go out to a movie. Then the two of you sit together in silence as you both keep your eyes on the screen.

With interpersonal interaction at that minimal level, what was the point of getting together, anyway?

A paper just published in the journal Psychological Science provides an answer. It finds shared experiences are more intense, even when two people aren't actually communicating.

This holds true for both positive and negative experiences, according to a research team led by Yale University psychologist Erica Boothby. So a film's bad dialogue is actually more painful if your buddy is by your side.

"Even in silence, people often share experiences, and the mental space inhabited together is a place where good experiences get better, and bad experiences get worse."

"Lives unfold socially, but often silently," the researchers write. "Yet even in silence, people often share experiences, and the mental space inhabited together is a place where good experiences get better, and bad experiences get worse."

Boothby and her colleagues demonstrate this effect in two experiments. The first featured 23 Yale undergraduates (all women), each of whom was paired with a research associate. Each participant tasted and evaluated two pieces of chocolate (which were, in fact, identical).

One of the tastings featured both participant and the research associate, who tried the candy at the same time but did not otherwise interact. (The associate was instructed to "remain stoic.") During the other, the participant tasted the chocolate while the associate performed a different task (looking at a booklet of paintings).

Afterwards, each participant rated the two candies. They "reported liking the chocolate significantly more during the shared experience," adding that it "tasted more flavorful," the researchers report.

The second experiment, featuring 22 female undergraduates, was a repeat of the first, except that this time, participants tasted bitter chocolate. This unpleasant candy "tasted worse when the experience was shared," the researchers report.

In addition, they note, "Participants tended to report feeling more absorbed in the experience of tasting the chocolate" when they were doing so simultaneously with another person.

That last finding is odd. Why would you become more focused on your own experience if someone else is present? Boothby and her colleagues hypothesize that "during a shared experience, one's co-experiencer actually becomes part of one's experience."

"Consider the following example," they write. "You and a friend are listening to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Thoughts about this piece of music are now intertwined with thoughts about your friend. Even though you are both focused on the melody, you are also highly aware of one another. Thinking about your friend and his or her mind might therefore cause you to think more about the Rite of Spring because that is also what is on his or her mind."

More research will be needed to confirm that idea, but our behavior—few people attend artistic or sports events alone—suggests Boothby and her colleagues are on the right track. So if you're looking for an intense experience, bring a friend. Chatter is optional.