Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The unforeseen costs of extraordinary experiences.

Daniel Gilbert and his collaborators at Harvard have come up with yet another fascinating nugget on our human behaviors:
People seek extraordinary experiences—from drinking rare wines and taking exotic vacations to jumping from airplanes and shaking hands with celebrities. But are such experiences worth having? We found that participants thoroughly enjoyed having experiences that were superior to those had by their peers, but that having had such experiences spoiled their subsequent social interactions and ultimately left them feeling worse than they would have felt if they had had an ordinary experience instead. Participants were able to predict the benefits of having an extraordinary experience but were unable to predict the costs. These studies suggest that people may pay a surprising price for the experiences they covet most.
A bit from the introduction:
More than 600 people have paid a minimum of $250,000 for a seat on the world’s first commercial spacecraft, soon to be launched by Virgin Galactic. Their journey will last a few hours, but they will talk about it for years to come...Floating weightless for several minutes while gazing down at Earth is an experience that falls somewhere between delightful and dazzling, which is why so many people are willing to pay so much money to have it. The less obvious consequence is that such experiences can make the people who have them strangers to everyone else on earth—and, as a rule, earthlings do not always treat strangers so nicely. At worst, people may be envious and resentful of those who have had an extraordinary experience, and at best, they may find themselves with little to talk about. Indeed, when people interact, they typically discuss the things they have in common and an afternoon in orbit typically is not one of them. Extraordinary experiences are both different from and better than the experiences that most other people have, and being both alien and enviable is an unlikely recipe for popularity.
In one experiment subjects in groups watched a video (17 groups of 4 participants, each watching in their own cubicle - afterwards they were escorted to a room for 5 min of unstructured conversation. One of the participants in each group watched a video that was superior to the video watched by the others. Participants who had watched the superior movie felt more enjoyment just after the film, but felt excluded during a subsequent social interaction, and this left them feeling worse than participants who had had an ordinary experience instead. A second experiment showed that participants correctly predicted that the extraordinary experience would leave them feeling better than the ordinary experience would before the interaction, but failed to realize that it would leave them feeling worse after the interaction. In a final study participants were asked to estimate how the actual participants in Study 1 felt. The result found was that they did not expect the extraordinary experiencer to be excluded from the interaction, and they expected the extraordinary experiencer to feel better—not worse—than the ordinary experiencers.

From the summary:
Pleasures come in two varieties: the social and the nonsocial. A hallmark of the nonsocial pleasures—whether the cool tingle of Dom PĂ©rignon or the hot snarl of a new Maserati—is that people adapt to them quickly, which is why such experiences are typically best when they are novel or rare. The social pleasures have a different appeal. People crave acceptance, belonging, and camaraderie, and the hallmark of these pleasures is that they come more readily to those who fit in than to those who stand out. The two varieties of pleasure give rise to a pair of incompatible desires: to do what other people have not yet done and to be just like everyone else. Satisfying the first of these desires can frustrate the second. When extraordinary experiences separate a person from others, these experiences may ultimately reclaim more joy than they provide.

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