Some consumer experiences are best when they’re solo — but new research shows that people will forgo a high-quality experience in order to share it with a partner or loved one. As a result, they may have a worse time, which can lead to unsatisfied consumers, lower sales, and neglected business opportunities. This article explains why people tend to stick together, even when it isn’t necessarily beneficial, and outlines several ways marketers can encourage people to break apart (even briefly) in order to boost their satisfaction.
People’s lives are generally a mix of spending quality time with others and leaving space for time alone. Some experiences seem geared toward togetherness — for example, recent estimates suggest that 90% of movie theater visits occur with others — while others are more geared toward solo time, like reading or painting. And while people often make their own decisions about how to spend their time, choices made by companies affect these decisions as well. Explicitly or implicitly, businesses are designed to encourage consumers to be with others or alone — like amusement park rides that have two seats in each row, or restaurants that offer bar seating so people don’t need to sit at a table with an empty chair across from them.
What impact do these decisions have on customer experiences? In particular, what happens when people face a dilemma: choosing between experiencing something next to a friend or partner, even though it may lower the quality, or obtaining a service of higher quality, but doing so apart? Examples of this include deciding whether to select two adjacent seats far from the stage at a concert or two non-adjacent seats in the front row of the venue, or waiting for a longer duration to go on an amusement park ride with the whole family rather than splitting up.
Our research, recently published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, demonstrates that consumers often choose services of lower quality to be physically close to a companion during an activity. People will select these lower-quality options even in situations that offer little opportunity for interaction (like a yoga class), even when they know they’ll have plenty of togetherness time later (like taking a flight on the way to a long vacation together) — and even when companies specifically tell them that services are designed to be experienced solo.
Consumers so value togetherness that they will choose less-pleasing experiences or even skip high-quality experiences just because they cannot be physically next to someone they care about. This can result in unsatisfied consumers, lower sales, and neglected business opportunities. Luckily, our research has also identified some strategies marketers can implement to encourage consumers to be apart from a companion if needed.
Tradeoffs Between Togetherness and Quality
To test the idea that people will choose social over solitary experiences, even when the latter may be more enjoyable, we first analyzed Tripadvisor reviews of the interactive play Sleep No More. This is a unique experience in New York City: people who attend this play walk around several theatrically designed rooms reliving the classic Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth. Importantly, this experience has been optimized for aloneness: the creators highlight that audience members should be silent, that people should walk at their own pace, and that staying with one’s partner would create barriers between the audience and the actors.
Yet, we observe that some visitors (45 out of the 312 reviews we coded) explicitly ignored these instructions and chose to stay with their companion, even though everyone was informed that they would meet their companion at the bar inside for an after-party discussion. What’s more, visitors who stayed with their companion rated the experience lower on Tripadvisor, about 25% below that of those who went through the experience apart from their companion.
We then conducted a series of experiments in lab and online settings to understand why consumers prioritize togetherness with a partner over the quality of experience, asking people to make choices about chocolate, seats for a show, or spots for a class. For example, in one study that we conducted at the behavioral lab of Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, we asked students to make a choice about how many chocolates they would like to share with another participant: they could either get two chocolates (one per person) and eat them together or they could get four chocolates (two per person) and eat them apart. We found that more people chose the option of eating fewer chocolates with another person when instructed that their companion would be a new friend as opposed to a stranger.
Ultimately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, we concluded that people want to remember experiences as shared with people they know, and they believe that physical proximity facilitates the creation of special memories. Many people even recognize that getting an experience of lower quality is in fact less enjoyable even when shared with someone else — and yet they still choose less-pleasing experiences to remember the activity as shared. This can pose a problem: research by Erica J. Boothby and colleagues demonstrates that sharing an experience with someone enhances the enjoyment only if the experience is positive to start off. Their theory suggests that when people share a negative experience (e.g., they watch a bad movie together), they will perceive it as even more unpleasant when engaging in the experience with someone else as opposed to alone.
This creates a dilemma for marketers and customer experience managers: many people will explicitly ignore your attempts to activity something solo, which may be fine if they enjoy the product or service. But if they don’t, their reaction will be even more negative because they shared it with someone else.
Making Solo Experiences More Enjoyable
If the experiences your company provides would benefit from consumers being solo (at least during a part of the activity), there are a few ways to encourage people to choose higher-quality experiences.
Given consumers’ reluctance to experience a perk without their partner enjoying the same perk, offering the same benefits to the companion of a recipient can be a way to increase people’s uptake and satisfaction with any special treatment they are offered. This might look like offering an additional TSA Precheck pass to the spouse of a frequent traveler. However, it is not always possible for companies to treat their customers with free or discounted perks that will improve the overall experience because of monetary or space constraints. For example, an airline might not have two empty adjacent seats in first class. So, how should they communicate a free first-class upgrade to two people traveling together when the seats aren’t next to each other?
In these situations, framing an activity as functional is one way to spur people to be apart during experiences where physical proximity to one’s partner would not necessarily maximize enjoyment. For example, a flight is one of many activities that people will share during a family vacation; thus, framing the flight as a utilitarian activity that serves the purpose of getting people to their final destination can be a way to encourage travelers to break apart to have a better experience. So instead of just saying, “Here’s an upgrade on us!” when treating a couple with two first-class non-adjacent seats, our research suggests the airline should also mention, “Use the time during this flight to rest because your adventure starts the moment you step off the plane.”
Finally, businesses could provide guidance for consumers to be together for some parts of an experience but also to indulge their own interests for part of the time. Think of a couple visiting an art museum: partners might perceive it as awkward or inappropriate to suggest that they split up at some point to see different exhibits, even though this would make them happier. However, the museum could suggest paths for parties visiting with a group to “divide and conquer” the museum by exploring different aspects of the collection. When the parties meet back up, they can share photos or descriptions of what they saw — enabling visitors to create special memories together of the experience.
Our research can help marketers minimize complaints from customers whose shared experience is of lower quality by encouraging consumers to take advantage of more pleasant solo experiences — all while keeping some aspects of their social bond intact. These findings are especially relevant for activities where physical proximity does not always maximize enjoyment, like education or self-care. Recognizing that consumers often overvalue togetherness could result in better strategies for your organization and happier customers.