What’s so special about tuning in together?
Some moments are undeniably more powerful when shared: “Bohemian Rhapsody” lifts our spirits higher when we listen with friends. Paranormal Activity is more frightening in a crowded theater. From down-to-the-wire football games to breaking storm bulletins, Web streams and live TV grip us tightly with the feeling that somewhere out there, everybody else is watching.
Matt Huston is the News Editor at Psychology Today. Before PT, he freelanced for The Philadelphia Inquirer and studied journalism at The College of New Jersey. He joined the magazine as an editorial intern in Summer 2012.
Editor: Muhammad Talha
When we see sad films or thrilling performances, we often do so with people who have something in common with us, if only our taste in music or movies. One might assume that as we watch and listen, we simply mirror our friends’ emotions—the stunned tears, the silly laughter, the head-banging—and that their feelings enhance our own. But new research suggests another possibility. Knowing that these people are attuned to what we are seeing and hearing marks the event as significant, and our increased focus then deepens the emotional impact, according to Garriy Shteynberg, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Tennessee.
In a series of experiments that Shteynberg and colleagues detailed in the journal Emotion, participants were shown a range of photos and videos designed to stir specific feelings, including an ad featuring a toothy creature (fear), a somber clip about homelessness (sadness), and lighthearted footage of bulldog puppies (happiness). In some cases, participants viewing the scenes on a computer were shown that other viewers, who had chosen the same avatar as they had, were watching at the same time—a tactic researchers used to instill a basic feeling of commonality.
Participants who watched simultaneously with these “similar” viewers reported stronger emotional responses and demonstrated more interest in what they had seen than those who received no indication that they were watching at the same time as others. Also important: Participants didn’t have to see anyone else watching, or even have others in the room. As happens when viewing live TV or scanning Twitter, they just had to think that others were tuned in to the same broadcast as they were.
This drive to see what others see could be a major reason we find shared spectacles so captivating, whether we’re reeling at The Walking Dead with a friend or watching the Olympics by ourselves—along with the rest of the world.