8 min readThe Value of Shared Experience

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Our Interdependence

Never could we have anticipated a time in our lives where we would be advised to have as little, or no contact at all with other human beings. There are now many states where legal action can be taken against anyone bringing together groups larger than 10–15 people. This is not normal, it doesn’t feel right, we hope it ends soon, yet here we are. While our current situation is far from ideal and far from over, there will certainly be lessons we may choose to carry with us when the dust begins to settle. In the meantime however, we’ve lost pieces of our days, and in turn ourselves, that we didn’t ever think would ever disappear.

A few months ago as I was lazily watching a movie with my (at the time) three and a half year old niece, I was reminded how much people rely on one another in social experiences. Every time I slowly began to nod off, she served as my wake up call, ensuring that while we were watching this movie together, my focus was not going to be anywhere else but on the TV. Opening my eyelids, grabbing my hand, or poking me in the side, she made sure — we laughed at the same time, jumped at the same moments, but most importantly enjoyed each others presence.

Judging from the majority of my daily interactions, it seems unlikely that her need to share an experience with me was a learned behavior. This was an intuitive response, it was her responsibility to share whatever she was watching with me, so that we held the experience and memory together. To me this was more enough proof showing that we are programmed as social creatures, but as we mature and grow out of the school systems, our understanding of the value social groups hold in our lives diminishes. Quite the opposite of children, whom we assume to have short attention spans, there are many people completely incapable of focusing their full attention on any shared group activity, and at worst — a conversation (you’ll notice how truly awful many are at paying attention the next time you try speaking with someone and rather than listening to what you’re saying — they’re lost in their own mental world, only concerned with whatever word vomit they want to force feed you next).

Social Perspective: COVID-19 Edition

The need to feel belonging in our communities is hardwired into our DNA, yet while we shuffle through the routine of everyday life it’s easy to overlook the barista, bartender, or cashier that remembered your name and exact order from the last time you were in the store. While for many — the opportunities to quarantine and work from home are possible, there are plenty of men and women that will continue to be on the front line every single day to make sure that our society continues to function. The most apparent and highest risk jobs in normal circumstances: doctors, nurses, cops and firefighters, now have to figure out ways to continue to do their jobs successfully, knowing well that the odds of becoming ill are increased greatly by doing so. To continue going out, to what is in many ways battle, everyday is courage most of us will never have to deal with. Let’s also not forget countless others professions who have now become directly in harms way, grocery store employees, train engineers, garbage collectors – keeping the essentials of our society running flawlessly. We need them now, and we need to thank them. My hope is that we come out of these strange times with a rekindled appreciation for humanity and the frailty of the things we become so accustomed to having everyday.

It’s quite possible that shared in-group attention may be the largest contributing piece of the puzzle toward understanding humans’ extraordinary inclination toward social learning. Being a part of something larger than ourselves, may help us assemble a better picture of the world as a whole and how we each make our contributions to the continuous evolution of our species. Along with that, today we can see the psychological power of co-experienced social media which may reside, in part, in it’s ability to supply audiences with a shallow/faux experience of shared in-group attention, without any feelings of empathy or love that is inevitable in person.

Action Item: Write down the things that you miss doing — even the smallest, most minuscule things. When life returns back to normal, periodically take a look at this list and let us not forget that it’s all something that could be taken away again.

Shared Social Value

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When we share experiences, it causes us to feel as though we are thinking in the same way and increases how much thinking we do about one another. We may assume that shared interactions are exclusive to when we are verbally communicating with one another — but every day people spend time together in the absence of explicit communication. Take examples such as a gym or a church. Our lives frequently unfold socially, but also silently. Yet even in silence, when we share experiences, the mental space inhabited together is a place where our emotions and thoughts are amplified. These silent moments can be just as beneficial to our happiness. There are plenty of aphorisms to support the idea that we are social animals as well, and that our satisfaction in life is derived from co-experiences: “Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste” (Charlotte Bronte); [personal favorite] “Ain’t no fun if the homies can’t have none” (Snoop Dogg); “You cannot live alone in this world. The way to enjoy life is to meet people like you, to exchange ideas, to learn from each other.” (Eliud Kipchoge)

There are a handful of reasons that social interactions may benefit our species in the long run, and because of this it becomes apparent that we now almost always enjoy any activity more when there are other people involved. From a study in which each party watched videos either solo or with another person and then rated their happiness levels on a scale of 1–10 “Participants have a strong desire to experience commonality with the inner states of other individuals. Considering how others feel about an experience is part of the process of establishing a “shared-reality,” which helps people to better understand the world [3739]. Numerous studies have noted that communicating with others’ about a topic can fundamentally alter the communicator’s memory, judgement, and impressions about that topic [40]. Similarly, observing others’ actions can influence one’s memory of their own actions.”

A specific component of personhood may involve the self as an agent of information [52]. In this light, the motivation to share experiences may not only be driven by a desire for social connection, but a desire to exchange experiential information with others, with the ultimate goal of facilitating decision-making and constructing a collective store of knowledge.” — Eshin Jolly, The Social Value

Group Think

Along with casual moments of shared experience and connection we have in our lives, this camaraderie is taken to a new level when large groups gather with a unified goal. Races, parades, games, rallies — the energy and sense of connection we feel during these moments are heightened to extremes. We can even remember these times with greater and more vivid detail: songs the band played before a big basketball game or what the weather was like when we saw our favorite band in concert last.

Nearly impossible to watch this without your heart rate being elevated

We participate in events like this as becoming part of a tribe, we now have a unique tie to everyone that we shared that moment with, we can reminisce later about what we experienced or what we learned. The connection that we have with those people, to that specific moment in time, is something we cling to.

As we become increasingly aware of the immense value in-person interactions hold in our lives, I hope that these thoughts and feelings we have now are not lost once we return to our daily routines. I hope that this is just the break we’ve needed in order to take a big step back and to look at things we’ve always taken for granted: shaking hands with a new friend, visiting family, attending a yoga class, the buzz of conversation in a coffee shop, or even the chaotic atmosphere from a late night bar crowd.

Evolutionary Outlook

“The ability to experience the world from a shared perspective has been theorized to be a biologically primitive adaptation that gave humans an unprecedented capacity for collective coordination and behavior…[which leads to] information that is co-attended with one’s social group conferring a critical evolutionary advantage.” Garriy Shteynberg and Evan P. Apfelbaum — The Power of Shared Experience

This means, if the number and complexity of skills acquired through social learning positively impact survival and/or reproduction, lineages with more opportunities for social learning will be prepared to respond and adapt with their increased set of learned skills as compared to lineages with little contact between the generations or strictly independent animals. The more frequently we interact, the more opportunities there will be for sharing which creates a larger collective knowledge base for the species to be passed on for thousands of years.

Application: Surround yourself with great people, when they see patterns, new opportunities, learning experiences, you experience these as well. With minimal effort, your individual knowledge will steadily rise to the level of those you surround yourself with.

You ruin empathy by not having an opportunity to interact with other people. When you interact with other people and you see how they feel and you see their emotions and then you can put yourself in their shoes, that builds empathy.” — Esther Wojcicki

Ron Swanson practicing social distancing