Mother always knows best, especially when it comes to our safety, but she got one thing wrong: Don’t talk to strangers. As children, we’re taught to avoid eye contact, stay far away, and not talk to strangers, but as adults, small talk with unfamiliar people could positively impact our well-being. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, commuters report a significantly more positive commute and greater well-being after talking to a stranger.
Urban life creates situations where we are within close proximity to each other, but surprisingly, as social agents, we tend to assume anti-social roles. Most of us are witnesses to the social paradox that plays out every morning as we all board commuter trains and buses and stand in close proximity to each other — inches away — but somehow routinely ignore each other. This common daily activity reinforces the notion that commuting is a dreaded experience, and sitting or standing in solitude is a way for us to internally cope. Commuting is known to be associated with fewer positive emotions than any other daily activity, according to a 2004 study published in the journal Science.
“Connecting with strangers on a train may not bring the same long-term benefits as connecting with friends,” said Nicholas Epley, author of the recent study, and professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, in the press release. However, he believes engaging with strangers during our commute may reap positive benefits for our health. To examine the experience of connecting to strangers, Epley and Juliana Schroder, co-author of the study, conducted a series of experiments to determine whether solitude is a more positive experience than interacting with strangers, or if people misunderstand the consequences of distant social connections.
The pair of scientists started their investigation by recruiting over 100 commuters at a train station in Homewood, Ill., and splitting them into three groups. One group was told to strike up a conversation with a stranger, the other told to stay silent, and the third to simply carry on like they normally would. After their commute, the participants filled out a questionnaire that asked them to rate how productive, pleasant, and happy their commute felt. The second experimental group filled out a survey that asked the participants to predict their happiness levels in each of the three situations. This group was not asked to take any action.
The findings for group one revealed participants had a more pleasurable commute, and even felt more productive when they struck up conversation with someone, according to Discover. They spoke for an average of 14 minutes. Unlike group one, the participants in group two assumed that talking to a stranger would make their commute less pleasant, less productive, and leave them less happy.
To assess the interactions between strangers in buses, Epley and Schroder conducted a similar experiment, and asked participants to rate the stranger’s interest in talking to them. Coinciding with the findings of group two, the researchers found people were interested in talking to a stranger but assumed strangers weren’t interested in talking to them. In another experiment, this time conducted in a waiting room — the strangers were interviewed after as well — participants reported being happier by conversation with a stranger. This represents a misunderstanding of the psychological consequences of social engagement.
“This misunderstanding is particularly unfortunate for a person’s well-being given that commuting is consistently reported to be one of the least pleasant experiences in the average person’s day,” Epley said. In the series of experiments, the participants underestimated others’ interest in connecting but also reported positive experiences by both being spoken to and speaking to a stranger. Overall, participants had a more positive experience when talking with strangers than those who were in solitude, suggesting we should not negatively perceive interacting with others.
We are under the false pretense that people who are silent on trains do not want to connect, so therefore, we assume a solitary stance. However, this study confirms we are social beings that thrive on connecting with others. The researchers define this concept as pluralistic ignorance. For example, people want to engage with strangers, but they stop themselves from doing so because they assume no one else wants to.
"This research broadly suggests that people could improve their own momentary well-being — and that of others," Epley and Schroder wrote in the study. The antidote to our dreaded morning commute may be in "simply being more social with strangers, trying to create connections where one might otherwise choose isolation.” So the next time you’re in an elevator with a stranger, find something worth talking about, rather than just awkwardly whistling your way to your destination.
Sources: Epley N, Schroeder J. Mistakenly Seeking Solitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 2014.
Kahneman D, Krueger AB, Schwarz N, Schkade DA, Stone AA. A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method. Science. 2004.