Do Shared Life Experiences Make It Harder to Understand Others?

A new study reveals that having similar life experiences can actually diminish our ability to perceive other people’s unique feelings and circumstances.

By Alina Ladyzhensky

Understanding each other’s thoughts and feelings is a vital component of successful relationships. For example, when we’re discussing emotional or stressful situations with other people, our intuition may tell us that someone who has gone through a similar experience is better at understanding what we’re going through. But a new study, led by University of Pennsylvania researcher Yoona Kang, has found compelling evidence to counter that assumption.

The study, “Experience similarity, mindful awareness, and accurate interpersonal understanding”, published in Mindfulness, reveals that having similar life experiences to another person can – perhaps counterintuitively – lead to a less accurate understanding of their feelings and factual details of the event.

Yoona Kang Headshot
Yoona Kang, Ph.D.

When we seek support from others, we want them to really hear and understand the details of the event and nuances of our feelings. Kang, a Research Director at the Annenberg School for Communication’s Communication Neuroscience Lab, endeavored to figure out what conditions could best facilitate this type of interpersonal understanding. Kang also wanted to learn more about how having similar past experiences interacts with mindful awareness, which she describes as having present-moment attention to awareness of internal and external experiences.

Evidence suggests that mindfulness may be beneficial in interpersonal communication and promoting prosocial (positive and helpful) behaviors towards others. Mindfulness, both dispositional and learned, has been associated with a tendency to be more empathetic and compassionate toward others. However, less has been clear as to whether mindfulness promotes the accuracy of interpersonal understanding.

Kang and her co-authors designed an experiment to test two different types of accuracy as they relate to interpersonal communication: empathetic accuracy (understanding another person’s emotional experience) and factual accuracy (correctly recalling details.) They recorded a speaker sharing details of an emotional and personal real-life event, then played the video recording for a group of 77 participants and asked them to rate the speaker’s emotions – based on how they perceived the speaker to be feeling – throughout the story.

The speaker was also asked to rate her own feelings throughout the video, and the researchers compared these results to the other participants’ ratings to determine how well they understood the speaker’s emotional experience. To test for factual accuracy, the participants were asked to recall details of the story after watching the video. Participants also indicated whether they had past experiences similar to those described by the speaker, and self-reported their levels of mindful attention and awareness.

Results showed that when listeners had similar life experiences to the speaker, they showed less factual accuracy and less empathetic accuracy. In other words, participants who had gone through similar experiences as the speaker were worse at understanding her emotions and the details of the story.

The study also found that people who had higher levels of mindful awareness were more accurate in understanding the other person's feelings, but only if they didn’t have similar past experiences as the speaker.

“One possibility is that having similar past experiences could mislead people into viewing another person’s life experience through a biased lens that is colored by personal history,” Kang says. “Although our data do not speak to this directly, it is possible that having similar past experiences to the other person may let your own biases kick in and undermine the benefits of mindfulness in interpersonal communication.”

Emily Falk Headshot
Emily Falk, Ph.D.

According to Emily Falk, Ph.D., a senior author on the study and Director of the Communication Neuroscience Research Lab and Professor of Communication, Psychology, Marketing, and Operations, Information and Decisions at Annenberg, the paper’s findings suggest that our past experience might cloud our ability to perceive others’ feelings and thoughts clearly.

“Feeling connected to other people is so fundamental to our wellbeing. It's fundamental to the human experience, and it's something that we all crave deeply. And maybe it's fine if I impose my interpretation onto your experience or give you a different perspective,” Falk says. “But what the data show is that if I've had an experience that's similar to yours and I’m listening to your story and trying to understand you, it may be harder for me to do that accurately than somebody who's coming to it fresh.”

“We all want to feel understood, and we want to understand the people that we care about,” she adds. “These data highlight something that we might not think about as deeply, which is: in what ways might my past experience get in the way of doing this?”

In addition to Kang and Falk, the study was co-authored by Melis Çakar, Kristin Shumaker, and Matthew Brook O’Donnell.