Research Article: Wanting without enjoying: The social value of sharing experiences

Date Published: April 18, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Eshin Jolly, Diana I. Tamir, Bethany Burum, Jason P. Mitchell, Alessio Avenanti.


Social connection can be a rich source of happiness. Humans routinely go out of their way to seek out social connection and avoid social isolation. What are the proximal forces that motivate people to share experiences with others? Here we used a novel experience-sharing and decision-making paradigm to understand the value of shared experiences. In seven experiments across Studies 1 and 2, participants demonstrated a strong motivation to engage in shared experiences. At the same time, participants did not report a commensurate increase in hedonic value or emotional amplification, suggesting that the motivation to share experiences need not derive from their immediate hedonic value. In Study 3, participants reported their explicit beliefs about the reasons people engage in shared experiences: Participants reported being motivated by the desire to forge a social connection. Together, these findings suggest that the desire to share an experience may be distinct from the subjective experience of achieving that state. People may be so driven to connect with each other that social experiences remain valuable even in the most minimalistic contexts.

Partial Text

Why are humans such social beings? Why do we choose to vacation with friends, dine out with significant others, or watch movies with family? A rich history of psychological research suggests that people choose to be social because it satisfies an adaptive need to belong [1]. Social connection protects both physical and psychological wellbeing; in contrast, social isolation has been linked to adverse consequences such as the onset of mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, and a decline in cognitive faculties [2, 3]. In other words, establishing successful social connections provides long-term adaptive value to individuals.

This paper aimed to explore the people’s motivations for sharing experiences with others. In Study 1, we tested the hedonic impact of shared experiences. We expected that shared experiences should either increase positive affect or amplify positive and negative experiences. Based on primarily null findings from those studies, we next tested whether people’s desire to share experiences need not depend on reaping pleasure from those experiences. Finally, we tested whether people seek shared experiences, in part, because a strong motive to feel connected with others consistently buoys our desire to share experiences. If so, to the extent that people are driven to achieve social connection, and associate shared experiences with social connection, they should continue to pursue even the most minimalistic and unrewarding shared experiences. Here we tested three claims born out of this proposal.

In Study 1 participants underwent an experience (e.g. watched a video clip) either alone or together with another individual (solo vs. shared conditions). The primary source of data collected and analyzed across these experiments was participants’ self-reported ratings of the experience or their emotional state. These design choices (i.e. self-report measures) were adapted from previous studies examining shared experiences (e.g. [7, 8, 9, 25]) and based on prior findings, we expected that participants who engage in shared experience would report higher levels of emotional intensity or increased enjoyment relative to non-shared (solo) experiences.

In Study 2 we adapted the paradigm used in Study 1a to test whether participants value minimalistic shared experiences. To do so we used the paradigmatic approach of revealed preferences [27]. Participants made a series of choices that allowed us to measure how much money they were willing to forgo (if any) to share an experience with another individual. This approach has previously been used to demonstrate that macaques will forgo food in order to view high-status group-mates [28], that university students will forgo money to view attractive members of the opposite sex [29], and that people will forgo money to communicate information to others [23, 30]. Here we used this approach to test whether participants valued opportunities to share experiences with another person, more than undergoing the same experiences alone in minimalistic contexts. The experimental design allowed us to test this while continuing to minimize the influences of interpersonal communication and nonverbal synchrony.

Studies 1 and 2 suggest that individuals do not always experience more pleasure or emotional amplification from shared experiences. Nevertheless, individuals consistently choose to engage in shared experiences–even under minimalistic conditions and even when it is costly to do so. This dissociation between wanting and liking shared experiences suggests that emotional benefits may not be the primary reason that individuals choose to engage in shared experiences. Instead we propose that the prospect of sharing experiences with others may derive from a strong affiliative motivation, one that helps foster relationships, facilitate information exchange, and improve general well-being in the long-term–all while leaving momentary affect unchanged. If so, individuals should report a strong association between sharing experiences and social connection. We test this hypothesis by probing individuals’ intuitions about the reasons people choose to share experiences, and the hedonic and social consequences of doing so.

People are driven to share experiences with others. Here we investigated this drive in three lines of studies that comprised nine experiments in total. Across the seven experiments in Studies 1 and 2 and two additional variations (S1 and S2 Texts), we demonstrate circumstances in which sharing minimalistic experiences do not increase enjoyment or amplify emotions. We also found that people persist in choosing to share these minimalistic experiences, even in the absence of a hedonic boost, and at a monetary loss. In two additional studies, we found that people do not expect any hedonic benefit from sharing minimalistic experiences, and instead indicated they would choose to share experiences because of a desire for social connection.