New research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology indicates that a shared sense of reality plays an important — but overlooked — role in social connections. The findings help explain what makes new acquaintances feel like they “click” when they first meet, and also why romantic couples and close friends feel like they share a common mind.
Many social psychologists have examined how partners perceive one another and how these perceptions are associated with various aspects of their relationship. But a team of researchers at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania proposed that how people perceived the world in general was an integral part of establishing and maintaining close relationships.
“You know the feeling of striking up a conversation with a stranger and immediately starting to finish each other’s ideas and riff off of each other? Or the feeling of glancing at a close friend across the room at an event and knowing that you were both reminded of an inside joke? I’m fascinated by these everyday experiences of shared reality — the perception of sharing the same thoughts and feelings in common with another person about the world,” explained study author Maya Z. Rossignac-Milon, a postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School.
“I got interested in this topic because I wanted to know the role of shared reality — whether between strangers, close friends, or colleagues — in shaping our sense of social connection to those around us and our perceptions of the world.”
In nine studies with 1,571 participants in total, the researchers found evidence that the subjective experience of sharing a set of feelings, beliefs and concerns about the world was a defining feature of close relationships. They created and validated an assessment of shared reality, which measured the phenomenon using questions such as “We typically share the same thoughts and feelings about things,” “Events feel more real when we experience them together,” and “We frequently think of things at the exact same time.”
“Romantic partners who experience a stronger sense of shared reality feel closer and more committed to their partner and feel that they have ‘merged minds.’ Further, once romantic couples have established a strong sense of shared reality, they are motivated to uphold and protect it,” Rossignac-Milon explained.
“We found that when their sense of shared reality is experimentally threatened (say, they are told that they don’t actually experience the world in the same way), couples high on shared reality engage in motivated behaviors to restore their sense of shared reality, like referencing inside jokes and shared memories or trips they took together. So these findings suggest that once it’s created, shared reality becomes an important part of close relationships.”
But a shared sense of reality was not just important for romantic relationships. There was also evidence that it influenced social bonding among strangers. Importantly, self-reported assessments of shared reality corresponded with observable behaviors, such as two people saying the same thing at the same time.
“In one study, we paired up participants and had them chat together online,” Rossignac-Milon told PsyPost. “We found that the more these pairs of participants engaged in particular interaction behaviors, like expressing agreement, saying things at the same time, and finishing each other’s ideas, the more they felt a sense of shared reality. And the more they experienced a sense of shared reality, the closer they felt to their conversation partner, the more they felt that they “clicked” with that person, and the more they wanted to talk again.”
“We also found that participants who experienced more shared reality were more certain of their beliefs about what they were discussing,” Rossignac-Milon noted. “This suggests that shared reality might help explain why after certain conversations with other people, we feel like we just ‘click’ with them, and also why after certain conversations we feel more certain of our beliefs.”
The researchers compared a shared sense of reality to related psychological concepts, such as perceived similarity, perceived responsiveness, and Inclusion of Other in the Self — a measure of relationship closeness that requires participants to choose from six sets of circles with varying degrees of overlap. But the effects of having a shared reality “held over and above the effects” of these other variables.
The findings provide a foundation for future research on the causes and consequences of a shared sense of reality.
“Lots of open questions remain,” Rossignac-Milon noted. “For example, how reciprocated is shared reality — that is, does my sense of shared reality with you predict your sense of shared reality with me? Are there certain types of people who are more likely to create a shared reality with others? Is there a dark side to shared reality, for example, in terms of closing us off to other possible realities?”
The study, “Merged Minds: Generalized Shared Reality in Dyadic Relationships“, was authored by Maya Rossignac-Milon, Niall Bolger, Katherine S. Zee, Erica J. Boothby, and E. Tory Higgins.