Those dyads were more likely to say that they clicked with each other – that they had struck up a rapport with the person on the other side of the screen and would be quite happy to meet in real life. They also experienced more certainty in what they thought was going on in the images. So, they felt closer to the other person, and more confident in their own opinions about the world.
Rossignac-Milon’s research challenges the conventional wisdom about new relationships: that we are mostly attracted to people who are similar to us. According to Paul Eastwick, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis who studies close relationships, “What is especially fascinating about Dr Rossignac-Milon’s work on shared reality is that it serves as a reminder that similarity is often a thing that two people create or discover together in the moment. It wasn’t ‘there’ on paper before the interaction took place.”
Although we’re encouraged to look for people who meet our preferences, shared reality theory suggests we may not know what our preferences are until we meet the other person. Many online dating sites are designed around the principle that if you can gather enough data on an individual, you figure out a perfect match. If a new relationship is an act of mutual creativity, however, the right match may be very hard to predict.
Rossignac-Milon’s work has implications for how we organise our interactions, personal and professional. If one way we form a social bond is to build a shared reality, then perhaps we can look to create opportunities for conversations about external stimuli.
Indeed, we do that already: lists of dating tips often suggest that a first date should include some kind of cultural activity, like a visit to an exhibition. Strolling around a gallery, talking about the art on display, can be a quicker route to rapport than a more direct conversation. It’s also why workplace teams have away days; getting out of the office enables colleagues to make sense of a new environment together, cementing relationships in the process.
Of course, much of this is hard to do at the moment. Public spaces are shut; communal activities are restricted. In our professional and personal lives, we are substituting video calls for in-person meetings. While this is necessary for everyone’s health and safety, it can have a detrimental effect on people’s ability to construct shared realities. A video call has the effect of stripping out the external world – it’s just you and your interlocutor or interlocutors, facing each other. No wonder that people find them exhausting.
But as Rossignac-Milon showed in her online experiment, people can strike up a rapport in the most minimal of virtual environments. In essence, the theory of shared reality suggests that we are most likely to feel closer to each other when we turn our mutual attention to something beyond ourselves. That puts the onus on each of us to engage in the world, cultivating our curiosity and priming our awareness. That way, whether we’re talking to a stranger, spouse or colleague, we’ll always have something to talk about.