Improve Momentary Well-being by Connecting with Strangers, Really

Our daily lives regularly place us in the presence of strangers. Many of us introverts will, by habit, choice or social norm, preserve our personal bubble and ignore the strangers. After all, “don’t talk to strangers” is an oft-repeated maxim from the parenting handbook.  Experimental data indicate that initiating a simple connection with a stranger will enhance your personal well-being and that of the stranger.  In this post, we glean actionable insights from Mistakenly Seeking Solitude (Epley and Schroeder, 2014).

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strangers, introverts

The Research

Humans in general are highly social creatures – hermits and misanthropes notwithstanding.  Sociability is a continuum, with introverts tending to lie on the less-social end of the spectrum.  Epley and Schroeder (2014) examined why people, even extroverts, tend to prefer isolation over connecting with strangers in short-term contact settings (e.g., public transportation and waiting rooms).  The researchers performed sought to test two potential explanations for this phenomenon:

  1. ‘Connecting with a stranger in conversation is truly less pleasant than remaining isolated for a variety of possible reasons. Preferring isolation in the company of random strangers may therefore maximize one’s well-being.
  2. People systematically misunderstand the consequences of social connection, mistakenly thinking that isolation is more pleasant than connecting with a stranger, when the benefits of social connection actually extend to distant strangers as well.’

Based on nine experiments conducted on trains, buses, and taxicabs and in a lab, Epley and Schroeder (2014) concluded that people misunderstand the consequences of social connection. Train and bus commuters predicted a more positive experience from sitting in solitude rather than connecting with a stranger. However, train and bus commuters that experienced solitude or connection with a stranger reported that they had a more positive experience when they connected with a stranger.  In these same experiments, commuters predicted that they would be less productive if they engaged with strangers.  Yet commuters that connected with a stranger reported no difference in their actual productivity.  Similarly, travelers leaving a major airport did not report being more tired after socializing with the taxicab driver. 

In another set of experiments with train and bus commuters, Epley and Schroeder (2014) found that participants expected they would be more interested in talking to a stranger than a stranger would be in to talking with them.  Although the commuters predicted that less than half of the strangers would engage in conversation, every commuter reported successfully connecting with a stranger.  The researchers concluded that “commuters appeared to think that talking to a stranger posed a meaningful risk of social rejection. As far as we can tell, it posed no risk at all.”

In the ninth and most complex experiment, pairs of participants in a waiting room setting each reported having a more positive experience when they connected than when they sat in solitude.  The waiting room participants also reported being similarly productive when they engaged with a stranger as when they sat in solitude.  Epley and Schroeder (2014) wrote that “apparently, being talked to by a stranger is every bit as positive as talking to one”.

Okay introverts, in all of these experiments, extraversion as measured by a standard personality traits survey, was not significantly related to the results.  Thus, building on the work of Epley and Schroeder (2014), both you and the strangers with whom you connect are likely to have positive experiences from a momentary social connection.  It is quite unlikely that your conversation-starting will be rebuffed and you won’t feel any less productive or more tired.

Putting it into Action

Assuming you’re an adult, ignore your parents and do talk to strangers.  Steady yourself with the awareness that the connection will be mutually pleasant and then say something.  This may feel quite uncomfortable and out of character.  However, doing this repeatedly will make it flow more regularly and naturally [another finding from Epley and Schroeder (2014)]. 

References

Epley, Nicholas and Juliana Schroeder. 2014. “Mistakenly Seeking Solitude.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143 (5): 1980–99.

This post is consistent with Quietly Thriving’s mission, approach, and guiding principles.

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