Today’s post is the first guest post ever on any of my blogs. Paul Zube is a good friend and fellow member of Island of Misfit Writers. He took the topic of shared experiences and ran with it, as the title says his way. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did.
A meteorite streaks across the night sky. It burns bright, breaks apart, and vanishes. The transformation from floating space rock to gorgeous atmosphere glory to mundane dust on a city street takes at most five seconds. Such an experience is the definition of ephemeral. That meteorite is unrepairable. It will never be that meteorite again. And yet, in my mind, it is still there. And this memory is strengthened because I got to share this experience with a good friend. When we talk about it, it manifests for our minds again. It also was something just the two of us experienced, creating a connection and bond that is exclusive to us. Humans, whether we admit it or not, value exclusivity. It’s why “limited time only” works on us. Shared experience is a powerful. We invented language to better facilitate it, used symbols to pass experiences beyond our own life times, and developed abstraction to not just represent an experience but to genuinely convey meaning. Shared experience is what humans do, and it is our sophisticated tools and cognitive capabilities that allows us to do it better than any other species on planet Earth (Tomasello & Rakoczy, 2003). [AGGGH, what’s that thing?! PZ- It’s a citation. It helps us back up claims and gives readers an opportunity to independently learn. You’re going to be fine, I promise.]
And yet, this guest post is not so much about understanding the power of shared experience. It could certainly focus on themes such as how shared experience helps us create and maintain memories (Edwards & Middleton, 2009), similar to my meteorite experience. It could also address how shared experience has impacts on work life and productivity (Moreland, Argote, & Krishnan, 1996) due to collaborative nature of our working experiences. What I am going to briefly focus on is why we shouldn’t always seek shared experience. Or, more precisely, why we should temper our immediate desire to seek out and develop shared experiences. [There were more of those parentheses things! PZ- shhhhhh, we’re doing ok.]
You may be wondering why I would want to point out how powerful and necessary shared experience is for humanity and then focus on how we should be consciously tentative towards shared experience. The short answer is conformity. Many of you may be familiar with Stanley Milgram’s work on compliance (see Obedience to Authority if not. It’s a good read), or Solomon Asch’s famous “three line” study about conformity [Fine, here’s a Wikipedia link THANK YOU!!], but psychology, communication, sociology, and even neuroscience have been interested in conformity and have developed work beyond those seminal pieces (see Cialdini & Goldstein, 2003 for a decent review) [Again? PZ- Yep. I’m a nerd, what do you want?]. So what does the positives of shared experience have to do with conformity?
As I mentioned previously, we crave shared experience. It helps us and connects us to one another. Conformity does the exact same thing, and we like that. Think of the most rebellious person in your life. I mean, that might even be you. Regardless, the idea of “the rebel” has existed for a long time. There is a “right way” to be a rebel. Sounds like normative behavior to me. There are certainly social outsiders who truly do not conform, but we put them in jail, mock them, etc. Foucault had some observations about that in Madness and Civilization. We are prone to conformity because it makes our lives easier. If you had to treat every single person that you interacted with as if they did not conform to social norms, we would be in endless interactions just to do simple things like buy a carrot. Conformity is good. Conformity is bad. Conformity is. We need to be aware of it, however. Conformity makes social life possible, but we also know the ways in which conformity limits opportunities, encourages us to live unexamined lives, and can lead towards the type of evils that humans are capable of.
This then leads me to the tentative encouragement of shared experience. We want that feeling. I saw that meteorite and it had meaning to me. My friend saw the same thing and it had meaning to them. In that instance, we were both awed and had a shared experience. But that’s not always the case. We will have co-experiences in our lives where regardless of having been through the same event, our meaning of it is not the same as the person right next to us. In this instances, we seek to find out why. We might even badger them to see our meaning. We desire the experience to be shared. We will make it shared. We will demand conformity. Then we can be happy.
Shared experience is wonderful, but it should not be imposed. It is just as important to understand another person’s dissimilar experience as it is to share it. We are homophily creatures. We like us and we want others in our lives to be like us too. Disconfirmation or competing interpretations cause us discomfort (see When Prophecy Fails for an overview of Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory. Also, a really cool read. Spoiler alert: Aliens. Seriously, aliens) but it is valuable discomfort. We should not seek to be static creatures, but developing beings. It takes new information, new experiences, new perspectives to achieve such a goal. Shared experiences help us make sense of our world, help us work with others, give us prolonged experiences. Share and share often. But don’t be so drawn to shared that unshared becomes valueless and resisted.
Cialdini, R. B. & Goldstein, N. J. (2003). Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annual Review of Pscyhology, 55, 591-621. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.142015
Edwards, D. & Middleton, D. (2009). Joint remembering: Constructing an account of shared experience through conversational discourse. Discourse Processes, 9, 423-459. doi: 10.1080/01638538609544651
Moreleand, R. L., Argote, L., & Krishnan, R. (1996). Socially shared cognition at work: Transactive memory and group performance. In J. L. Nye & A. M. Brower (Eds.), What’s social about social cognition? Research on socially shared cognition in small groups (57-84). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Tomasello, M. & Rakoczy, H. (2003). What makes human cognition unique? From individual to shared collective intentionality. Mind & Language, 18, 121-147. doi: 10.1111/1468- 0017.00217