Christopher Ingraham/The Washington Post

If you’ve spent any time around little kids, you’ve probably noticed they have an almost limitless capacity to repeat activities they enjoy: getting tossed in the air by an obliging adult, say, or watching the same movie over and over and over again.

New research from Ed O’Brien at the University of Chicago suggests that adults could stand to learn from the toddlers in their lives. In controlled experiments involving hundreds of volunteers, O’Brien has found that people typically enjoy repeating leisure activities much more than they thought they would.

Those who repeat enjoyable activities, like watching a movie or going to a museum, seem to pick up on nuances and dimensions of the experience they missed the first time around, the study found. By reflexively seeking out novelty instead of returning to the tried-and-true, we may be leaving many of life’s enjoyments unenjoyed.

Many previous studies have shown that, when it comes to leisure time, people have a general tendency to seek out novel experiences. In the language of social science, O’Brien said, “Filling leisure with novel experiences indeed disrupts adaptation and promotes discovery."

Or, in the more poetic formulation of 18th-century English poet William Cowper, “Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.”

To test people’s experiences of variety and repetition, O’Brien conducted a number of two-pronged experiments. Each participant was asked to do a leisure activity: Some went to a museum exhibit, and others watched a movie on Netflix or played a simple computer game.

At the conclusion of the activities, participants were split into two groups. The first, which O’Brien calls the predictors, were asked to imagine how much they’d enjoy doing the exact same activity again, on a scale of one (no enjoyment) to seven (extreme enjoyment). The second group, the “experiencers,” repeated their activities: The movie-watchers saw the same movie, the museum crowd returned to the same exhibit, and the game-players played again. When they were done, they rated their enjoyment on the same one-to-seven scale.

O’Brien found large and statistically significant gaps between how much the predictors thought they would enjoy repeating an activity and how much the experiencers actually did enjoy it. One average, the gap was as much as a full point.


“Novelty may be found not only in experiencing new things for the first time but also in reexperiencing the things one already has,” O’Brien wrote. “People stop consuming familiar entities while enjoyable surplus is left on the table.”

These findings have potential implications for a number of domains. “Partners choosing a movie together may be too quick to assume an option is now spoiled if one has already seen it, leading to needless search time and suboptimal replacements,” O’Brien noted.

Maybe you don’t need to try all 31 flavors at Baskin-Robbins, or all 87 brews on tap at your local bar. It might be more enjoyable to find one that you like and stick with it.

And the newest, latest and greatest versions of products might just make you miss your old version.