It’s become a truism that humans are “social animals”. And yet, you’ve probably noticed – people on public transport or in waiting rooms seem to do everything they can not to interact. On the London tube there’s an unwritten rule not to even look at one another. This is the paradox explored by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder in a series of nine new studies involving members of the public on trains, planes, in taxis and a waiting room.
The investigation began with rail and bus commuters travelling into Chicago. Dozens of them were recruited into one of three conditions – to engage in conversation with a stranger on the train, sit in solitude, or simply behave as they usually would. Afterwards they mailed back a questionnaire in which they answered questions about the experience. Their answers were compared to the predictions made by other commuters, who instead of fulfilling one of these three conditions, imagined what kind of experience they’d have had if they’d taken part.
The returned questionnaires showed it was those commuters who were instructed to strike up conversation with a stranger who’d had the most positive experiences (sitting in solitude was the least enjoyable, with behaving as normal scoring in between). Surprisingly perhaps, chatting with a stranger didn’t come at the cost of self-reported productivity. These findings contrasted starkly with the predictions made by the commuters who imagined taking part – they thought that being asked to engage with a stranger would have been the least enjoyable of the three conditions. Epley and Schroeder said this provides evidence of a “severe misunderstanding of the psychological consequences of social engagement”, thus providing a clue as to why, despite being social animals, we so often ignore each other.
Why do we think chatting to strangers will be so unpleasant? To find out, the researchers approached more commuters on Chicago trains and buses. One possibility is that people’s predictions are skewed by the dominance of memories of past negative experiences. To test this, the researchers asked commuters to imagine having a positive conversation with a stranger, a negative conversation, or just any conversation. If memories of bad experiences skew people’s perceptions, then being asked to imagine any conversation with a stranger should be negatively toned by default. In fact no evidence was found for this.
Another possibility is that each of us mistakenly assumes that other people don’t want to talk, thus creating a situation of “pluralistic ignorance”. This theory was supported: people said they were more interested in chatting to strangers, than strangers would be in chatting to them. Also, they predicted that over 50 per cent of strangers would likely rebuff their attempts to talk – in fact, this didn’t occur for any of the participants who were instructed to chat to stranger in the earlier studies.
If the reason we ignore each other is because so many of us hold the mistaken assumption that no one else wants to talk, then you’d expect greater past experience chatting to strangers (and discovering it’s mutually enjoyable) would lead to more accurate predictions. That’s exactly what the researchers found when they tested people queueing for taxis. Participants who said they frequently chatted to taxi drivers correctly anticipated that other passengers instructed to chat to their driver would have the most pleasant journeys, as compared with those instructed to sit in silence, or simply behave as normal. Note: people instructed to chat to their driver tended to report having more pleasant journeys, even if their usual habit was to sit in silence.
In a final study, the researchers attempted to address two issues – perhaps chatting to a stranger is only fun if you’re the one who initiates it, and/or perhaps the results were due in part to participants’ satisfaction at completing a goal set by the researchers. This time Epley and Schroeder asked strangers to spend time in pairs in a waiting room. Some of the individuals in each pair were instructed in advance to chat to the other person; others were “invited” to do so, but it was emphasised to them that this was not an instruction. Consistent with the earlier results, people reporting having a more pleasurable time in the waiting room if they chatted to each other, and this was true whether they were invited or instructed to chat. It was also true for those people who were the recipient of the initial approach, as well as those who initiated the conversations.
A further interesting detail from the studies is that the pleasure of talking to strangers was observed for introverts and extraverts alike. “Removing the barrier to starting a conversation, rather than trying to increase a person’s own trait extroversion, may therefore be the most effective way to encourage interactions with distant strangers,” the researchers said.
Of course one can look for loopholes in these studies. One problem is the results may be specific to urban US culture. Another is this research involved isolated instances of chatting to a stranger. In real life, frequent commuters may avoid striking up conversation with fellow travellers, for fear of getting stuck talking with the same person everyday.
Epley N, Schroeder J (2014). Mistakenly Seeking Solitude. Journal of experimental psychology. General PMID: 25019381