The Belief That Engaging in Extraordinary Experiences Together Can Foster Relationships
Imagine a couple, Tina and John, who struggle to find time together during a typical week because they have conflicting work schedules. What type of experiences would Tina and John choose for a date night? Would they pick a special experience—like attending a Cirque du Soleil show or trying the newest restaurant in town—or would they settle for a more mundane experience, like ordering takeout and watching Netflix at home?
Like Tina and John, people today often feel they do not have enough time to spend with loved ones—a romantic partner, best friend, or family—given work and personal responsibilities. People have multiple important relationships they must juggle and cultivate; yet they only have 24 hours a day and seven days a week to do so! So even though the concept of “quality time” in friendships, romantic, and familial relationships is a central ingredient for relationship success, finding time to be with those we love is hard.
So we asked the following question: when people objectively cannot increase the amount of time they have to spend with loved ones, how do they think they will make the most out of the limited time they have with a partner?
In a series of studies, we found that people prioritize extraordinariness—above and beyond other factors such as convenience—when they perceive their time with a relationship partner as scarce.
Our first test was on a social media platform, where we created two different ads promoting a blog post featuring the top five extraordinary experiences in Boston. The slogan of one ad was “Summer just began so you will have a lot of time to hang out with your loved ones!” while the slogan of the other ad was “Summer is so short so you won’t have that much time to hang out with your loved ones!” The experiment ran over the course of 10 days, randomly showing users residing in the Boston area one of these two ads. We found that when the ad highlighted the notion that shared time with loved ones was scarce (vs. abundant), 18% more people clicked to read the blog post featuring extraordinary experiences in their city.
Following this, we found more evidence for this prioritization of extraordinariness when time is limited. In the laboratory, participants were asked to choose between two types of chocolates to share with a lab partner: they could either get one gourmet chocolate or two regular mass-produced chocolates. We varied whether or not they had limited time with their partner by telling participants that they would have two more interactions in the lab with this partner, or only one. While 63% of our participants gave up quantity by choosing the extraordinary option (the gourmet chocolate) when they perceived their time with their partner as abundant, a larger percentage—80%—chose the extraordinary option when they perceived the shared time as scarce.
People prioritize extraordinariness because they believe doing so will help them maintain the well-being of the relationship. Indeed, in one study, we asked participants to choose a restaurant for a dinner with a work colleague who would either be in town for several more months, or just one more day. Additionally, we asked participants to imagine they either cared strongly about maintaining the relationship with this colleague or they did not.
The effect of shared time scarcity on preference for an extraordinary experience disappears when people do not care about maintaining the relationship with the other person; instead, in such situations, they prioritize other facets of the experience, such as convenience.
Going back to our initial example of Tina and John, we expect they would choose the jaw-dropping circus show over an evening at home watching Netflix. In other words, choosing extraordinary experiences is a relationship maintenance strategy that people use as they seek to maximize the limited time they have with loved ones.
But of course, our work doesn’t answer one important question: is this indeed a wise strategy, or does it unnecessarily focus attention on the unique experience and away from, say, meaningful conversations that may better enhance their relationship well-being? That is for future research to answer.
For Further Reading
Garcia-Rada, X., & Kim, T. (2021). Shared time scarcity and the pursuit of extraordinary experiences. Psychological Science, 32(12), 1871–1883. https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976211026981
Ximena Garcia-Rada is an assistant professor of marketing at Mays Business School, Texas A&M University. Her research focuses on consumer behavior and well-being with an emphasis on close, personal relationships.
Tami Kim is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Her research focuses on consumer behavior in digital environments.