The Unexpected Joy of Repeat Experiences

By Leah Fessler

Scrolling through Instagram can quickly convince you that everyone’s life is more interesting than yours. During a particularly adventurous week on Instagram Stories recently, I saw water skiing in Maui, hiking in Yosemite and swimming with wild pigs in Bermuda. Wild pigs!

Impulsively, I started Googling flights to new places. Then I ordered pho from the same Vietnamese place I eat at every week and … felt bad about not trying somewhere new.

This fear of missing out is rooted in a common psychological tic: Evolutionarily, we’re disposed to find novel experiences more exciting and attention-grabbing than repeat experiences, according to research published in the Journal of Experimental Biology. It’s basically fight or flight psychology — our brains can’t process all the stimuli around us, so we evolved to pay attention to new, flashy and potentially dangerous things more intently than familiar things, which we’ve seen enough to know they’re not dangerous. What’s more, words like “repetition” and “repetitiveness” — unlike “novelty” — tend to be associated with more negative emotions, said Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School.

“Classic research shows that when we think about upcoming experiences, we think about variety,” said Mr. Norton, who specializes in consumer behavior. “If I ask you right now to select a yogurt for each day next week, you’ll pick your favorite flavor — say, blueberry — a few times, but you’ll mix in some strawberry and peach. Because who wants to eat that much blueberry yogurt? Over the longer term, though, as the original experience fades in time and memory, repetition can become more pleasurable.”

He added: “We’re simply more boring than we’d like to admit.”

Our obsession with novelty is also enhanced by the influencer and experience economies, which confer social status based on how many new things you can do, see and buy, as Leah Prinzivalli unpacks in a recent article documenting the rise of Instagram to-do lists. This can be emotionally and financially draining: Few of us have the time or money to regularly indulge new experiences, which can lead us to feel bad about our lives’ monotony. However, recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology about repeat and novel experiences suggests we ought to reconsider how we digest those feelings of monotony.

This research centers on hedonic adaptation — when an identical stimulus provides less pleasure the more it’s consumed.

Some previous research has painted a negative picture of repeat experiences, citing that doing the same thing twice can feel inherently less valuable. But Ed O’Brien, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, wondered whether behavioral science misconstrued hedonic adaptation, and people actually underestimate how positively they react to repeat experiences. Many of us happily listen to our favorite song on repeat, he noted, or rewatch favorite movies and TV shows. This repetition was the whole point of purchasing music or film before the age of Spotify and Netflix. This conflict is why Mr. O’Brien launched a series of studies on the topic.

“There’s a general belief that if you want to seem like an interesting, cultured person, the best thing you can do is to showcase that you’re open to new experiences,” he said. “That may be true, but I think we take for granted the other value of really digging deep into one domain.”

To test this hypothesis, Mr. O’Brien and his team exposed all participants to the same stimulus once in full (various stimuli were tested, including museum visits, movies and video games). Next, some participants were asked to imagine repeating the experience, while others actually did repeat the experience.

Counter to previous research, Mr. O’Brien found that across the board, repeat experiences were far more enjoyable than participants predicted.

“Doing something once may engender an inflated sense that one has now seen ‘it,’ leaving people naïve to the missed nuances remaining to enjoy,” he wrote in the study.

In other words: You’re far more likely to enjoy something the second time around than you think.

Given that participants experienced the exact situation they imagined repeating, their predictions should’ve been relatively accurate, Mr. O’Brien explains. In reality, participants who repeated experiences found the second time around just as enjoyable as the first.

“Novel experiences are definitely great for enjoyment, and our studies don’t go against this idea,” he said. “In many cases, the novel option is better. But what our studies emphasize is that repeat options also might have high hedonic value and might also come with less costs to acquire than a purely novel option, and people might sometimes overlook this.”

There is joy in repetition partly because every human mind wanders. Consequently, we miss a substantial part of every experience.

“As I’m enjoying a museum or a beer, my mind is also thinking about emails I need to send, phone calls I need to return and the name of my third grade teacher,” Mr. Norton said. “So repeating things can really be seen as another opportunity to actually experience something fully.”

This is especially true when the experience is complex, leaving ample room for continued discovery.

“When an experience has many layers of information to unveil, it’s probably a good bet to repeat it,” Mr. O’Brien said. “The rub is that it’s hard to tell which experiences will be like this, and our studies show that people are too quick to assume that they’ve ‘seen all the layers’ even in those cases where they haven’t.”

In fact, it’s safe to assume there are more explorable layers in any experience, according to Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard and the so-called “Mother of Mindfulness.” That’s because the process of looking for new insights in any repeat experience is fulfilling in and of itself. It’s the essence of mindfulness.

“When you’re noticing new things in any experience, neurons are firing, and that’s the way to become engaged,” Ms. Langer said. “Many people look to be engaged, because they’re bored with life and they don’t know what to do. All you need to do is approach whatever task is at hand by searching for the things that you didn’t see in the first time around.”

If you’re unsure how to be more mindful in repeat experiences, Ms. Langer offers three tips.

“First, recognize that everything is always changing, so the second experience is never exactly the same as the first experience,” she said. “Second, if you’re looking for novelty, that’s itself engaging, and that engagement feels good.” And third, you must realize that events are neither positive nor negative. “It’s the way we understand events that makes them positive or negative,” she said. “So that if we look for ways the experience is rewarding, exciting, interesting, we’re going to find evidence for that. Seek and ye shall find.”

Beyond helping us feel excited at the prospect of staying home and strolling around your neighborhood this winter rather than jet-setting to a tropical beach, Mr. O’Brien’s research suggests we should think twice about our cultural obsession with doing and accomplishing as much as humanly possible.

“Coffee will never taste as good as it does if you quit it for a month. So it’s true that novelty is fun, but given enough of a break in between, repeat experiences regain that initial buzz,” Mr. Norton said. “This is why people do seemingly crazy things, like creating time capsules. If you looked at your third-grade report card every day, you’d get sick of it — but if you bury it in a time capsule and unearth it 20 years later, that’s fascinating.”

Why Popcorn Tastes Better When You Eat it with Chopsticks

If you are not enjoying your favorite things as much as you used to, new research suggests a way to break through the boredom: Try the same old things in new ways. Researchers found that people found new enjoyment in popcorn, videos – even water – when they consumed them in unconventional ways.

Findings suggested that using unconventional consumption methods helped people focus on what they enjoyed about the product in the first place, said Robert Smith, co-author of the study and assistant professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

“When you eat popcorn with chopsticks, you pay more attention and you are more immersed in the experience,” Smith said. “It’s like eating popcorn for the first time.”

This phenomenon may explain such things as the popularity of “pitch black” restaurants that serve diners in the dark. “It may not be anything special about darkness that makes us enjoy food more. It may be the mere fact that dining in the dark is unusual,” Smith said.

Smith conducted the study with Ed O’Brien of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. The results appear online in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The researchers conducted four experiments.

In one study, 68 people came to a laboratory supposedly for an experiment about “helping people eat more slowly.” Half the people ate 10 kernels of popcorn using their hands, one at a time. The other half ate the kernels one at a time with chopsticks. Afterward, participants rated the experience on a variety of measures, including how much they enjoyed the popcorn, how flavorful it was and how much fun it was to eat it. Results showed that people who ate the popcorn using chopsticks reported enjoying it more than those who used their hands, Smith said.

Another finding suggested why that might be. Those who used chopsticks – compared to those who ate with their hands – reported that they felt more immersed in the experience, that it helped intensify the taste and helped them focus on the food.

But the researchers then had the participants repeat the experiment. In this second trial, everyone enjoyed the popcorn equally and felt equally immersed, regardless of how they ate it. “This suggests chopsticks boost enjoyment because they provide an unusual first-time experience, not because they are a better way to eat popcorn,” Smith said.

A second study of 300 participants recruited online found that even drinking water was rated as more enjoyable when it was done in novel ways. In this study, participants came up with their own “fresh, new and fun” ways to drink water – everything from drinking out of a martini glass to drinking out of a shipping envelope to lapping at the water with their tongue like a cat. Those who drank water in these novel ways enjoyed it more than those who drank it normally.

In the final two studies – one conducted in a lab and one done online – participants watched a one-minute video three times in a row. The video showed an exciting motorcycle ride filmed with a GoPro camera from the driver’s perspective. All participants watched it twice normally, rating how much they enjoyed it after each viewing. But the third viewing was different for some participants. One-third were asked to watch the videos using “hand-goggles” – forming circles with their thumbs and index fingers around their eyes, and using them to track the ride by bobbing their head back and forth to follow the cyclist. For another third of the participants, the video was flipped upside down. The final third watched the video in the conventional way.

As expected, those who watched the video in the conventional way showed less enjoyment by the third viewing. Those who watched the video upside down didn’t enjoy it very much because, even though the viewing was unconventional, it was also disruptive. However, those who watched the video for the third time with hand-goggles enjoyed it more than the other groups.

But did participants really enjoy the video more – or did they just like the strange experience of using hand-goggles? Results suggest the unconventional way of watching really did make the video itself more enjoyable. After the study, the researchers offered to let all participants download the video to keep – and three times more people who watched with hand-goggles asked to download the video than those in the other conditions. “They actually thought the video was better because the hand-goggles got them to pay more attention to what they were watching than they would have otherwise,” he said. “They were more immersed in the video.”

Smith said these findings apply in a variety of ways to everyday life. For example, when you’re eating pizza, after eating one slice normally, you could try eating one slice with a knife and fork and then folding the next slice. And if you’re sick of your sofa, try putting it in another room rather than getting rid of it. “It may be easier to make it feel new than you might think. It is also a lot less wasteful to find new ways to enjoy the things we have rather than buying new things,” he said.

This article has been republished from materials provided by The Ohio State University. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.

Unconventional Consumption Methods and Enjoying Things Consumed: Recapturing the “First-Time” Experience. Ed O’Brien, Robert W. Smith. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, first Published June 17, 2018,