Social Psychology and the Wisdom of Senior Cohousing

A few weeks ago, Stanford psychology professor Jamil Zaki blogged about one of his favorite scientific experiments, performed back in the 50’s by Stanley Schachter. Participants were told they would receive a series of electric shocks, and then asked if they would prefer to wait in a room alone or with other people. When the participants were told that the shocks wouldn’t hurt at all, they expressed no preference for either waiting room. But when they were told that the shocks would be quite painful, a significant majority chose to wait with other people. This result isn’t all that shocking (pardon the pun), as we all know that humans have a natural propensity to huddle together in times of adversity.

Where it got really interesting was in Schachter’s follow-up study. Participants expecting painful shocks now had three choices: to wait alone, to wait with others expecting shocks, or to wait with people who would not receive any shocks. In this scenario, the preference for collective stoicism did not apply to the random strangers, as the participants only wanted to be around those who shared their fate. Zaki’s conclusion?:

This suggests that the benefit of crowds depends on our belief that others share our experiences.

Of course, this is not to imply that aging has anything to do with electric shock treatment! Our elder years are ripe with possibility for personal growth, and have been shown to be the happiest time of life for most people. However, aging can present some significant challenges, and these scientific studies provide empirical evidence for our instinctual human desire to face such challenges in the comfort of a supportive group. Intentional senior communities like Phoenix Commons address this element of human nature by creating nurturing environments in which members can consistently rely on each other for moral support, in both good times and bad.

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