Mutual experience* presents a paradox.
*Mutual experience, simply put for purposes of this post, is doing the same thing as someone else. It could be simultaneous (e.g. riding a roller coaster with a friend) or temporally divided (e.g. reading a novel after a friend has read it).
There is little in life that is a more consistent source of pleasure than mutual beneficial experience. It explains the joy in reading old yearbook entries (where friends write of inside jokes) and the pleasure of jogging our memories with a friend or lover over a pleasant past mutual experience.** The pleasure of mutual experience is behind the nauseating (to me, but pleasing to many others) back-and-forth over travel experiences.
**It may be more than momentary. One study has shown that couples’ reminiscences of events of shared laughter improve overall satisfaction with their relations.
Yet, we often try to avoid mutual experience. At restaurants, we will order a different dish than a previous person at the table even if the dish chosen earlier was our first preference. When making significant life decisions, being part of the herd is generally a downside. For instance, when choosing a college, we don’t want to go to a school where everyone else goes It’s somewhat disturbing to follow the same path as someone else ahead of us: same high school, same college, same graduate school, same job, etc.
Part of this paradox is explained by the variable desire to be unique. Here are a couple of factors that explain some of the variation:
First, this desire for uniqueness increases when we consider our experiences collectively. We want our bundle of life experiences to differ at least somewhat from other people’s bundles. If this isn’t the case, we cannot help but reconsider our self-perception. We may seek solace in the idea that such similarities of experience are only on the surface, but how do we make sure our purported uniqueness gets across to others, especially if they don’t readily see what’s underneath that surface? If we care about others’ perception of us–and really, who doesn’t?–and if our surface similarities to the life experience of a certain other person or people are all others see of us, then there is reasonable cause for concern about our identity.
Second, temporal proximity increases the demand for uniqueness. Ordering at the restaurant is a good example: When we order after another person, our order choices are so close in time that we cannot help but feel that we are copying (or, that others will perceive that we are copying) when we order the same item as someone previously. This outweighs the benefit—and surely there is one—of sharing satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with the dish you order. Yet, when discussing travel experiences that occurred months or years apart, the mutual satisfaction outweighs the copycat concern.
The evaluation of the paradox leads to conflicting results. On the one hand, our desire for uniqueness—our desire to avoid mutual experience—leads to suboptimal choices. We don’t order our favorite dish or pick the job that we think would be the best fit for us. On the other hand, our desire for uniqueness drives innovation. It’s what motivates people to leave the firm and start their own business. Yet, shared mutual experience is a key component of meaningful friendships and relationships and, unless one is a complete recluse by preference, it is impossible to live a happy life without it. There is no clear solution to this paradox, but it is valuable to recognize when aversion or preference for mutual experience is driving your decision; that way you can reach the first step is assessing whether mutual experience is something that you want driving particular life choices.