These Psychologists Think We'd Be Happier If We Talked to Strangers More
Though you should definitely take this on a case-by-case by case basis
By Shannon Palus
July 18, 2014
A daily subway commute can leave you with a lot of time to feel alone, even in a way-too-crowded space. A pair of psychologists suggest that we might all be happier if we removed the irony of the situation, and actually engaged with the folks around us.
In different iterations of an experiment, psychologists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder tapped people who were taking the bus, the subway, or who were waiting in a waiting room. They tasked some of the participants with starting a conversation with a stranger, told some to stay silent, and left some to just be their normal selves. Across the board, Discover reports, the people in the chatty group felt the happiest about how they'd wiled away their time.
So if chatting with strangers makes us happy, why don't we all tend to do it?
The researchers asked the study participants to estimate how interested they thought strangers were in talking to them. The participants said that they assumed that they weren't. The New York Times says we're missing out:
By avoiding contact, we’re all following a collective assumption that turns out to be false. When the middle-aged woman starts playing Candy Crush Saga after she sits down next to the hipster scrolling through his iTunes library, they both miss out on an opportunity for connection.
According to Discover, the assumption that strangers don't want to talk to us is all a big misunderstanding:
[The researchers] say we clam up around strangers because we misunderstand the consequences of engaging with someone we don’t know.
But maybe the women just wants to play Candy Crush, and not play stranger-roulette with her peace of mind? On of the things about engaging with strangers on the subway, especially for women, is that not all interactions are good interactions. Earlier this year, the New York Times collected stories of street and subway harrassment:
“Like many women who live here, I’ve been harassed too many times to count,” said a commenter identified as Madeleine.
“The fact that street harassment gets brushed off as a ‘fact of life’ is something that needs to be changed,” said another commenter, Caroline G.
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Journal of Experimental Psychology: General | PDF
Connecting with others increases happiness, but strangers in close proximity routinely ignore each other. Why? Two reasons seem likely: Either solitude is a more positive experience than interacting with strangers, or people misunderstand the consequences of distant social connections. […] Prior research suggests that acting extroverted—that is, acting bold, assertive, energetic, active, adventurous, and talkative (the exact list has varied by study)—in laboratory experiments involving group tasks like solving jigsaw puzzles and planning a day together, generally leads to greater positive affect than acting introverted—lethargic, passive, and quiet—in those same situations. […] Connecting with a stranger is positive even when it is inconsistent with the prevailing social norm. […] Our experiments tested interactions that lasted anywhere from a few minutes to as long as 40 minutes, but they did not require repeated interactions or particularly long interactions with the same random stranger. Nobody in the connection condition, for instance, spent the weekend with a stranger on a train. Indeed, some research suggests that liking for a stranger may peak at a relatively short interaction, and then decline over time as more is learned about another person. If, however, the amount of time spent in conversation with a distant stranger is inversely related to its pleasantness at some point along the time spectrum, then this only makes the results of our experiments even more surprising. On trains, busses, and waiting rooms, the duration of the conversation is relatively limited. These could be the kinds of brief “social snacks” with distant others that are maximally pleasant, and yet people still routinely avoid them.