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Mom was wrong: You should talk to strangers

July 17, 2014

New study finds commuters have more positive experience when they connect with strangers

An interesting social paradox plays out every morning around the world as millions of people board commuter trains and buses: Human beings are one of the most social species on the planet, yet when in close proximity with one another – sitting inches away on a train – we routinely ignore each other.

Why can such social agents be so antisocial?

Humans don't understand the benefits of social connection, according to a new study by University of Chicago Booth School of Business Professor Nicholas Epley.

In "Mistakenly Seeking Solitude," published recently in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Epley and co-author Juliana Schroeder found that participants in the experiments not only underestimated others’ interest in connecting, but also reported positive experiences by both being spoken to and to speaking with a stranger.

"Connecting with strangers on a train may not bring the same long-term benefits as connecting with friends," Epley states. "But commuters on a train into downtown Chicago reported a significantly more positive commute when they connected with a stranger than when they sat in solitude."

Though participants reported greater well-being when they did engage with strangers, they predicted precisely the opposite pattern of experiences, according to Epley, which demonstrates a profound 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 says. "This experiment suggests that a surprising antidote for an otherwise unpleasant experience could be sitting very close by."

The researchers conducted nine experiments, in both field and laboratory settings, to examine an apparent social paradox: why people who benefit greatly from social connection nevertheless prefer isolation among strangers. Participants were commuter train and public bus riders who were asked to talk to a stranger, to sit in solitude, or to do whatever they normally would do, then fill out a survey to measure the actual consequences of distant social engagement versus isolation.

"Participants in the connection condition reported having the most positive experience out of all three of our experimental conditions. Most important, participants in the connection condition reported having a significantly more positive experience than participants in the solitude condition," according to Epley.

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Contact: Professor Epley is available for comment and can be reached at (773) 834-1266 or epley@chicagobooth.edu