We're happier when we chat to strangers, but our instinct is to ignore them

Posted on August 16, 2014

Photo: flickr

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.

Category(s):Happiness, Social Anxiety / Phobia

Source material from British Psychological Society

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