Shared misery

Recently I discovered an interesting psychological phenomenon that I shall call shared misery in this essay. No doubt this phenomenon has been discovered by psychologists in the past, and I am convinced that there must have been some research around it too. However, since I don't know what it would have been called in the psychology literature, I need to ask some of my friends who work in the domain.

To summarize the phenomenon, let us say that there is some task that requires a tool such as a text editor, a programming language, a web browser, or some other software tool. Also, let us say that there are two (or more) possible manifestations of this tool. For our examples, it could be Emacs and VIM, Common Lisp and Python, Firefox and Chrome, etc. For the purpose of this essay, let us just call the two alternatives a and b. Now let us imagine a person P who has spent some considerable amount of time learning a rather than b. Typically, P chose a not after having carefully weighed all options, but rather by chance, such as having a friend who also used a and recommended it.

Now, let us imagine P becoming part of some group where most members use b rather than a, and that it becomes clear to P that for the tasks that concern this group, in fact b is a better choice than a. However, a is a workable solution, and it is not worth the potentially huge effort on the part of P to change.

The interesting observation is what happens when some new person Q becomes a member of the group, and Q does not a priori have an investment in neither a nor b, so Q asks other members of the group for advice.

In my experience, P will then recommend that Q use a rather than b despite knowing that b is a better alternative. The recommendation is typically a bit ambiguous and does not take the direct form of claiming superiority of a over b, but rather the more indirect form of asserting that a has worked out quite well for P, typically without any mention of b. In the group, claiming that a is superior to b would of course immediately be challenged by the other members. It is as if P wants to share the misery of having to settle for a sub-optimal tool.

It seems to take some extraordinary psychological effort on the part of P to view the situation from the outside and recommend what is clearly a better choice for Q.

My examples are all software tools, simply because that is my domain of work. But I have no reason to believe that this phenomenon is limited to software.