By Emma Young
You rub off the panels on a scratch card and find that you’re the lucky winner of £100. If you could choose when the same thing should happen to a good friend, would you rather it was the same day as your win — or a different day? And what if we’re talking negative, rather than positive, experiences — when you’ve both been issued with parking tickets, say, or both suffered a bereavement?
Earlier work shows that we tend to prefer to get through a series of negative experiences as quickly as possible, while we like to space out multiple personal positive experiences, so as to receive the most pleasure from each joy. A new study in Social Psychological and Personality Science finds that when we’re thinking about shared experiences, though, this doesn’t hold. The participants in this study preferred to experience both negative and positive events on the same day as a friend, rather than on different days — as long as those events weren’t powerfully emotional. Franklin Shaddy at the University of California, Los Angeles and his colleagues think we have this “preference for integration” because it increases our feelings of connection with others. This could have implications for how we arrange our lives during lockdown.
In the first of five studies, the team found that the vast majority of a group of student participants wanted to receive a surprise friendly message (in this case from the head coach of UCLA’s basketball team) on the same day as a friend, rather than a different day. In a second study, the majority of 304 online participants said that they’d feel happier about winning a moderate amount of money on a lottery — or being issued with a tax demand for a similar amount — if a similar financial win or loss happened to a friend on the same day than if it happened on another day shortly before or afterwards.
In further studies, the researchers found that people preferred to “integrate” — or “coordinate” — an event such as receiving a first-class flight upgrade or missing a flight with someone whom they liked. But when it came to someone they didn’t like, they had no strong feelings about the timing of the event. The same was true for another group of participants who were asked to think of imaginary people who they were told had similar political beliefs to their own, or opposite beliefs. The team thinks that people like the idea of coordinating positive or negative experiences with friends (or people they think they would get on with) because they feel that this will boost their feelings of social connection with the other person.
However a final study found that there are limits to this preference for integration: we prefer more extreme wins — and especially losses (such as getting divorced or totalling a car) — not to happen at the same time to us as to a friend. The team interpret this as reflecting a limited human capacity to savour gains and buffer losses, with shared extreme losses being harder to handle.
There are other potential interpretations of the results, though. If you won money, might you worry that telling a friend could make them a little jealous, or even resentful or self-pitying — or might you even feel guilty about your own good luck? How much better it would be, then, for you both to win money on the same day. Also, we could be averse to experiencing strongly upsetting events on the same day as a friend simply because a friend who’s also suffering is less likely to be able to help us to cope with our own distress.
Still, there are potential practical implications of the finding that we prefer to share experience of pleasant events. “Past research has shown that people underestimate their enjoyment of, and thus hesitate to engage in, hedonic activities alone,” the team writes. That resistance might be overcome if we were to share a positive experience with someone else if not in space, at least in time. During lockdown, we can’t meet a group of friends to go for a walk in a pleasant spot near our home, for example — but a group of friends could arrange to go individually for a walk in different uplifting places at the same time, and hopefully benefit from the feeling of enhanced social connection that this could bring.