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Strangers commonly ignore each other on their daily commutes. According to Nicholas Epley, John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, this phenomenon is likely due to people’s concern for how others view them: people believe speaking to others will be awkward, so they avoid doing so. Epley has found, however, that this worry is misplaced, and leads people to miss out on the kinds of social interactions that improve their happiness and wellbeing.

In 2014, Epley partnered with Juliana Schroeder—an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business who earned her PhD from the Booth School of Business—in order to conduct research aimed at discovering just how much people actually benefit from spontaneous social interaction with strangers. They discovered that while study participants believed only around 40% of strangers on public transit would be willing to speak with them, in practice every person approached by a study participant was willing to do so.

In their paper, "Mistakenly Seeking Solitude," published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Epley and Schroeder demonstrated how people, to their surprise, enjoy connecting with strangers, and how social behavior is an essential part of being human.

Upon completion of the study, the researchers found that “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, yet they predicted precisely the opposite pattern of experiences.”

The same phenomenon was present in taxis, buses, a laboratory waiting room, and various other settings where strangers are commonly ignored, demonstrating what Epley and Schroeder consider to be “a severe misunderstanding of the psychological consequences of social engagement.”

The researchers took their analysis one step further, measuring the reactions of those who were not given instructions to initiate conversation, but rather had a stranger initiate a conversation with them. People who connected with others, the study found, had a more positive experience even when they were not the participant initiating the conversation. These findings further demonstrate how misled people are by their own assumptions.

While Epley and Schroeder’s original experiment took place in downtown Chicago, they’ve recently replicated their groundbreaking study, this time with the help of the BBC on public buses and trains in the United Kingdom.

When the research team repeated the experiment on trains in London, the data confirmed what they had discovered in Chicago: people benefit from conversations with strangers. Despite different cultures, national customs, and average lengths of commute, the conclusions reached in the initial study were maintained. Spontaneous social connection was a net positive in both cities. And yet most people continue to underestimate the benefit of this kind of interaction.

"Humans are inherently social animals, who are made happier and healthier when connected to others," Epley and Schroeder write. "Feeling isolated and lonely, in contrast, is a stress factor that poses a health risk comparable to smoking and obesity."

BBC aims to change British citizens’ perceptions on isolation and social interaction with a new initiative they call BBC Crossing Divides On the Move Day. The initiative directly applies Epley’s research to Virgin Trains, Arriva, Translink, National Express, and various public buses and trains throughout the U.K., introducing various conversation starters and activities aimed at sparking conversations between passengers during commutes. Through Epley’s original study and recent replication, he’s proven to BBC the vital importance of “creat[ing] a greater sense of belonging and break[ing] down barriers in society.”

While people may worry about what strangers will think of them when starting conversations, Epley’s findings demonstrate that all parties involved report feeling an increase in happiness. In their article published by the BBC, Epley and Schroeder give commuters, as well as people going about their normal daily schedule, advice on how to use these conclusions to improve their day-to-day lives:

“The next time you'd like to help a stranger with something, or strike up a conversation, but are worried about how they might react, simply give it a try. Our research suggests it's likely to go significantly better than you might expect, leaving both of you feeling happier and better connected.”

Nicholas Epley is the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science and faculty director of the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Juliana Schroeder is an assistant professor in the Management of Organizations group at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business.