Once an hour she had been allowed to come in and grip Joe’s unresponsive hand for five minutes before they made her leave again. Upon her return to the waiting room, total strangers would ask, “Did he speak to you? Did he open his eyes?” and she would ask the same of them when they returned from their relatives. They had grown as close as a family through fear and grief and endless hours of just sitting. Although now, she couldn’t recall what those people had looked like, even. (Tyler, 2001
, p. 158)
Imagine feeling like family with someone whose appearance you do not know. For most sighted individuals, this scenario seems preposterous—the kind of thing that only happens in novels. Even when people spark up a relationship over the Internet, they typically request to see a picture once the relationship progresses beyond a certain point. The apparent predilection for information about one’s interaction partners extends beyond the visual realm. People expect their loved ones to know certain facts about them: first and last name, eye color, date and place of birth, family structure, among other things. Pity the person who does not know (or worse, forgets) these “vital statistics,” for her ignorance often gets interpreted as a sign of disingenuous love.
This emphasis on knowing key facts about loved ones reflects a more general perspective on interpersonal connections, one that regards people as objects about which to learn (e.g., Byrne, Clore, & Smeaton, 1986
). According to this perspective, the typical relationship trajectory goes from encountering people, to acquiring information about them, forming an image of them, and finally, arriving at a conclusion as to how much we like them (e.g., Asch, 1946
). Certainly, many relationships develop in this very way. Yet Tyler’s (2001)
protagonist hints at a different path toward the development of an interpersonal bond. Shared subjective experiences (e.g., “fear and grief and endless hours of sitting”) can foster intense feelings of closeness—even familial feelings—among people who have virtually no objective information about one another. We believe that these kinds of connections provide an important message about attraction, liking, and relationships: The belief that one experiences a moment in the same way as another person can serve as a powerful interpersonal epoxy. We call this phenomenon, characterized by the sense that one’s subjective experience overlaps with that of at least one other person, I-sharing
The term I-sharing derives from James’s (1890/1918)
partition of the self into two aspects: the “Me” and the “I.” The Me consists of our representation of ourselves, our self-concept. It includes anything pertaining to what we call ours, what we think of ourselves, how we feel about ourselves, what we know about our behaviors, our memories, and so forth—the self-as-object. If we look in a mirror, the Me is represented by the reflection we see.
In contrast to the Me, the I refers to the agentic part of the self, or the self-as-subject. It represents that aspect of our self that, at any given moment, perceives, reacts, interprets, and experiences. If we look in a mirror, the I represents the part of us that does the looking. Whereas the Me tends toward stability, changing only insofar as people add to their representations of self, the I is fleeting in nature; it changes from one moment to the next, as one’s experiences change, and leaves what James (1890/1918)
referred to as a stream of consciousness
in its wake.
We refer to I-sharing as the subjective experience of having one’s self-as-subject (i.e., one’s I) merge with that of at least one other person. When people I-share, they believe that they and at least one other person have had the same subjective experience in response to a given stimulus. Whatever one person experiences at a given moment—whether it be the bitter taste of unsweetened chocolate or the mind-numbing challenge of a Zen Koan—she presumes her I-sharer experiences as well.
We hasten to add that the impossibility of directly experiencing the world as another subject means that conclusions about I-sharing could be, and probably often are, wrong. For this reason, I-sharing refers to the subjective sense that one or more people have experienced a given stimulus identically; whether they actually have had the same subjective experience is another matter altogether and beyond the scope of this article. For our purposes here, we consider any time people perceive that they and at least one other person have an identical experience as an instance of I-sharing, regardless of whether their experiences actually are the same.
Because we have no way of directly “getting inside another person’s head,” we necessarily make an inference each time we conclude that we I-share with another person. This is not to say that people always go through extensive inferential processing to determine whether they I-share with another person, although we suspect that people sometimes do deliberate over this issue (e.g., I wonder if that kiss meant the same to her as it did to me
…). More often than not, however, the inference of I-sharing probably manifests itself as a very rapid snap judgment based on experientially processing the cues—verbal and/or nonverbal—that the other person emits (cf., Epstein, 1994
One set of cues likely to lead to the perception of having I-shared consists of reacting identically to the same stimulus. When two or more people simultaneously laugh in response to the same joke, cry in response to the same sad song, say the word “antidisestablishmentarianism” in response to a request for a word that starts with “a,” or erupt into a frenzied polka upon receiving a reminder of the approach of Octoberfest, they believe that they have experienced a moment identically, that they have I-shared. Thus we suspect that simultaneity in spontaneous responses to a given stimulus serves as a common cue for inferences about I-sharing. But people also can believe they I-share with one another when they retrospectively discuss their reactions to an event (e.g., Could you believe the game last night?
). In addition, people can infer that they I-share with an imagined or implied other, as when they read a poem or hear a song and sense that they intimately understand the author’s perspective. Like the characters in Tyler’s novel, who all awaited news of their ailing loved ones, people might also draw I-sharing inferences on the basis of whether they happen to find themselves in highly similar circumstances (Hodges, Klein, Veach, & Villanueva, 2004
). Finally, as we elaborate on later, people might also infer I-sharing on the basis of similarity with respect to objective features of the self (e.g., ethnicity, place of origin, family composition).
Regardless of how people arrive at the conclusion that they do or do not I-share with another person, we propose that this conclusion contributes heavily to profound feelings of connection. The allure of I-sharing might even cause those who repeatedly experience I-sharing moments with one another to consider themselves “soulmates” or “kindred spirits.”
Why would I-sharing influence feelings of attraction so heavily? We offer two, interrelated reasons. First off, although people rarely study it, the self-as-subject—by definition—as-sumes a vital role in people’s experiences. Moreover, people report feeling most alive and content when in a state of subjective self-awareness. Consider Csikszentmihalyi’s (Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre,1989
; Csikszentmihalyi, 1999
) work on flow, which suggests that people feel happiest when they fully immerse themselves in a task and lose their usual focus on their objective selves. Brown and Ryan (2003)
have made a similar point in their work on mindfulness, a state of heightened awareness of and attention to one’s current experience. When mindful, people lose their focus on their Me and instead surrender to being the subject of their moment-to-moment experience. It is important to note that research reveals strong positive associations between mindfulness and a host of well-being measures. In short, we maintain that people’s subjective selves play a vital role in their daily lives. From this perspective, it comes as no surprise that similarity with respect to this part of the self can serve as an especially powerful form of similarity that predicts interpersonal attraction.
We also believe that people’s fundamental existential isolation underlies people’s attraction to I-sharers (see Pinel, Long, Landau, & Pyszczynski, 2004
; Yalom, 1980
). No matter how well we know a person, we simply cannot know certain things about them firsthand. To experience any stimulus—simple or complex, significant or trivial, short-lived or enduring—we must filter that stimulus (consciously and preconsciously) through our own sense organs and higher level perceptual apparatuses and schemata. We cannot borrow another person’s optical or olfactory or auditory nerves to know what something looks like or smells like or sounds like to her, nor can we lend her ours for a peek at the world through our senses. We can turn to others for evidence that they share our experiences, but we cannot get inside their minds to know for sure, nor can they step inside of ours. In short, we can never truly know another person’s subjective experiences. Despite the tremendous advances humans have made over the millennia in the ability to communicate with one another, we still have not uncovered a way to transcend this existential divide.
People do not necessarily think about their existential isolation on a conscious level, and this is probably a good thing, because the inescapable fact of our existential isolation poses a problem for the satisfaction of at least two fundamental self-motives—the need for belief validation (e.g., Festinger, 1954
; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991
; Swann, 1996
and the need to feel connected to others (Baumeister & Leary, 1995
; Bowlby, 1969
; Brewer, 1991
; Florian, Mikulincer, & Hirschberger, 2002
Given that we experience reality subjectively, we rely on shared subjective experiences with others as a method of confirming our experiences (see Swann, 1996
). But if we cannot verify that other people independently experience reality in the same way as we do, we can never find foolproof validation of our experiences. It comes as no surprise, then, that people suffering from feelings of existential isolation often have a dreadful sense that their world can vanish into thin air (Yalom, 1980
In the same way that our fundamental existential isolation poses challenges for our need for belief validation, so too does it interfere with our ability to feel connected to others. If we cannot know for sure that another person understands us at the level of how we experience a stimulus, we cannot feel certain that they truly know us. And, if someone professes to love us but does not really know us at our core—at the level of how we experience the world—then we start to suspect that he or she loves an image of who we are rather than our actual self.
Given the potential for existential isolation to interfere with our satisfaction of the needs for belief validation and interpersonal connectedness, it does not surprise us that people have developed a range of behaviors that seemingly serve the purpose of disguising their existential isolation. For example, people regularly overestimate the number of people who share their attitudes (Ross, Greene, & House, 1977
); presumably this “false consensus effect” would generalize to estimates of shared subjective experience as well. The tendency to assume similarity of the subjective kind also appears to emerge in our close relationships. Consider recent work by Murray and her colleagues (Murray, Holmes, Bellavia, Griffin, & Dolderman, 2002
) that indicates that over time people start to assume that their partners share their emotional states, among other things. We believe that the human state of existential isolation also serves as the primary impetus behind the quest for I-sharers, and that finding I-sharers keeps feelings of existential isolation at bay.
Why? Because I-sharing brings people as close as they can ever come to feeling existentially connected with another person. Although the experience of I-sharing may sometimes be quite illusory, it temporarily eliminates the feeling of being alone in one’s own experience of the world. In so doing, I-sharing liberates people from the threat to their needs to know and to feel connected posed by the knowledge of their existential isolation.