Get the Most From a Shared Experience

Mar 21, 2018

Women Leading Research: Rebecca Ratner

Rebecca RatnerSMITH BRAIN TRUST – Have a first date coming up? Or maybe you’re planning an activity with an old friend. Just take a minute at the outset to make sure you’re on the same page about what you each hope to get out of the experience. You’ll have a better time and you’ll be less likely to leave disappointed, according to new research from marketing professor Rebecca Ratner at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. 

Ratner studies how people feel when doing things alone and with other people. Her most recent experiments – along with Smith Ph.D. candidates Yuechen Wu and Nicole Kim and Georgetown professor Rebecca Hamilton – tested what happens when two people share a leisure experience.

The researchers looked at how an experience improves for the participants when they have a quick goal-setting conversation first. But people don’t often have those conversations, Ratner says, and they enjoy the experience less because of it. “There’s uncertainty. When you are with another person, you don’t really know what that person wants to get out of the experience,” she says. “People become too worried about how they should act.”

Take for example, going to a baseball game with a friend or colleague. If you don’t know how interested the other person is in watching the game, you’ll sit nine innings worrying about when to be silent or when to initiate conversation, Ratner says. 

Ratner and her co-researchers conducted several experiments sending people into art galleries either alone or with a companion to study how well they were able to focus on the art and how much they enjoyed the experience.

When a participant didn’t know whether their friend was truly interested in studying the art or was more into casually observing the pieces and chatting for fun, they themselves focused less on the art and socialized less.

“They end up sort of frozen,” Ratner says. 

A very brief discussion beforehand about what each person wanted to get out of the gallery visit made all the difference: “They each learned more about the art, got more out of the experience overall, and felt better able to socialize,” she says.

But in the experiments, when given the option, participants choose not to have an expectation-setting meeting before activities. Ratner says people don’t take opportunities to get this clarity because they seem to think the conversation won’t help and that it will be uncomfortable – more like work with a goal-setting meeting. In reality, study participants reported the conversation was much less awkward than they feared.

Having that quick conversation benefits both people no matter how well they think they know each other, she says. The effects emerge both when the people are strangers and when they know each other. And having clarity helped even when the partners had different goals.

“It is better for it to be clear that you have different goals than to be not sure whether you have different goals,” says Ratner. In some case, you might find you are better off going alone when it’s clear that you and your companion are not on the same page, she points out. 

Ratner’s advice to avoid disappointment and fully enjoy an outing with a companion: Have a quick chat to set expectations. If both parties are on the same page, no one gets disappointed. “You may think it would be awkward to have a discussion about goals, but it’s really not,” says Ratner. Keep the conversation quick and light-hearted, she suggests, to avoid it feeling like a laborious task.

Read more: “Getting the Most from Shared Experiences: Understanding What Your Partner Wants Increases Your Own Ability to Focus on Experience Content and Enjoyment,” is a working paper. 

Rebecca Ratner is the Dean’s Professor of Marketing and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs.

Research interests: Factors underlying suboptimal consumer decision making, focusing on variety seeking and the influence of social norms.

Selected accomplishments: Research has appeared in top marketing, psychology, and decision-making journals, including Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Journal of Experimental Psychology, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Her research has been featured in the media including The New York Times, Washington Post, CBS News: This Morning, and NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. She has served as associate editor at the Journal of Consumer Research and Journal of Marketing Research and co-editor of Journal of Marketing Research.

Women Leading Research: Rebecca Ratner

About this series: The Smith School faculty is celebrating Women’s History Month 2018 in partnership with ADVANCE, an initiative to transform the University of Maryland by investing in a culture of inclusive excellence. Daily faculty spotlights support activities from the school’s Office of Diversity Initiatives, starting with the seventh annual Women Leading Women forum on March 1, 2018.

Other fearless ideas from:  Rajshree Agarwal  |  Ritu Agarwal  |  T. Leigh Anenson  |  Kathryn M. Bartol  |  Christine Beckman  |  Margrét Bjarnadóttir  |  M. Cecilia Bustamante  |  Jessica M. Clark  |  Rellie Derfler-Rozin  |  Waverly Ding  |  Wedad J. Elmaghraby  |  Rosellina Ferraro  |  Rebecca Hann  | Amna Kirmani  |  Hanna Lee  |  Hui Liao  |  Jennifer Carson Marr  |  Wendy W. Moe  |  Courtney Paulson  |  Louiqa Raschid  |  Rebecca Ratner  |  Debra L. Shapiro  |  M. Susan Taylor  |  Niratcha (Grace) Tungtisanont  |  Vijaya Venkataramani  |  Janet Wagner  |  Yajin Wang  |  Yajun Wang  |  Liu Yang  |  Jie Zhang  |  Lingling Zhang

Image credit: topvectors



About the Expert(s)


Rebecca Ratner is the Dean's Professor of Marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. She received a Ph.D. in social psychology from Princeton University in 1999, was a visiting scholar at the Wharton School in 1996 – 1997 and a visiting scholar at the Chicago Booth Graduate School of Business in 2004. Prior to her position at Maryland, she was assistant professor and associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ratner has taught courses on marketing management, marketing research, and consumer behavior to MBA students, undergraduate students, and executives.

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