EMOTIONAL HEALTH
October 13, 2014

Bad Topics for Good Conversation

Talking about that chance meeting with George Clooney or your trip to Machu Picchu may not be the social lubricant you hope.

It only seems natural to want to share your most cherished and “epic” moments with friends — perhaps of chatting with a celebrity or swimming with the dolphins. But when we do this, we can actually create a barrier and become less popular with friends, instead of more so, a new study shows. The findings suggest that we may want to edit ourselves.

“We all appreciate experiences that are fine and rare, and when we get what we want, we're always eager to tell our friends,” said study author Gus Cooney in a news release. “But I've noticed that conversations always seem to thrive on more ordinary topics. This made me wonder if there might be times when extraordinary experiences have more costs than benefits, and whether people know what those times are.”

It may be gratifying to share your wildest experiences, but it could have the opposite effect on the listener.

Cooney and his team invited people to their lab and divided them into groups of four. They had one person in the group watch a “4-star” video of a magician doing cool tricks for a crowd. The others in each group watched less scintillating “2-star” animated videos.

All participants were aware of the types of videos the others had been assigned. After the videos, each foursome reassembled and discussed what they’d seen.

The person who had watched and discussed the 4-star video reported feeling worse after the discussion was over than did the participants who’d discussed their 2-star videos. The 4-star person also reported feeling more excluded during the group discussion.

As you might guess, follow-up experiments with other participants revealed that these findings are completely unexpected: When asked to guess how watching a 4-star video vs. a 2-star video would make people feel during a discussions, a different set of participants said they believed the 4-star watchers would feel happier and be more active participants in the discussions. Neither of these predictions, of course, turned out to be true.

This may be because the 4-star watchers ultimately became “different” from others in the group. Conversation is more often about shared experiences.

“Extraordinary experiences are pleasurable in the moment but can leave us socially worse off in the long run,” said Cooney.

“The participants in our study mistakenly thought that having an extraordinary experience would make them the star of the conversation. But they were wrong, because to be extraordinary is to be different than other people, and social interaction is grounded in similarities.”

In the same vein, Facebook and other social media have gotten a lot of attention from the scientific community in recent years. Studies have found that use of the sites is actually linked to jealousy, lower well-being, and a greater sense of alienation, possibly because we’re constantly comparing our daily grind to other people’s glamorous selfies from exotic vacations.

Cooney suggests keeping in mind how others in your group will feel after you share, rather than how you’ll feel. It may be gratifying to discuss your wildest experiences, but it could have the opposite effect on the listener and put a damper on conversation or posted responses.

“When choosing between experiences, don't just think about how they will feel when they happen — think about how they will impact your social interactions,” says Cooney. “If an experience turns you into someone who has nothing in common with others, then no matter how good it was, it won't make you happy in the long run.”

So before you tell all your friends how you rubbed elbows with Bill Gates or Rihanna at a cocktail party, consider how doing so might leave them feeling. It might just be better to join in the conversation that’s already in progress, so that you’ll stay an insider rather than setting yourself apart.

The study was carried out by a team at Harvard University and published in the journal Psychological Science.
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