Hunter Prosper is in his 20s and has 5 million followers on TikTok. He doesn’t sing, dance, bake hyperrealistic cakes, or otherwise entertain others with special skills. Rather, he simply talks to people. In his series, called Stories from a Stranger, Prosper asks individuals he meets to answer intimate questions such as “Who was your first love and why did you fall in love with them?” or “When have you felt your weakest?” The videos are short (averaging 30–40 seconds) but profound. When asked about her first true love, a middle-aged woman says that she hasn’t had one and that she’s still looking. In another video, Prosper asks a young woman, “What’s a feeling that you miss?” She answers, “Simplicity,” describing the joys of childhood and lamenting how complex life becomes when you have to worry about money and relationships.

Like the photography project Humans of New York, Prosper’s video series builds on the idea that everyone has a story to tell, but that few of those stories make it beyond a small circle. Far from revealing their inner thoughts to a stranger, most people walk past others, saying little more than hi. We can sit for hours next to strangers on an airplane but hardly acknowledge their existence, staring into devices or out of windows instead of starting a conversation.

Why do humans, who are social creatures by nature, spend so much time ignoring others? Chicago Booth’s Nicholas Epley has long studied that question, and his research suggests that we’re hindered by a barrier of our own making. We generally avoid having conversations and even giving compliments because of what we think will happen if we do. We are worried about feeling awkward, or held back by fears and expectations that, it turns out, are systematically mistaken and exaggerated. We should recognize that our fears are overblown and try to overcome them, Epley argues. Doing so would make us happier.

Quiet, lonely train rides

Epley commutes to work by train and has spent years watching people avoid discussions and eye contact, even when in a rush-hour throng. He had this realization on a train one day, during a period when he was working on his first book, Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want, and specifically on a section that described brain structure. “Much of our forebrain, the fat part above our eyes, our neocortex, is designated for social cognition. And that’s the part of our brain that makes us unique from other primates,” he says. Yet when he looked around his train car, he noticed everyone fiddling on their phones or staring into space. “It was one of those ‘what the hell is going on?’ moments you have as a behavioral scientist,” he recalls. “Why is it that a highly social species is sitting cheek to cheek, with brains uniquely built to quickly connect with each other—and we’re made happier and healthier by doing so—and yet we’re all sitting here ignoring each other?”

That morning he struck up a conversation with an older woman sitting next to him. He commented on her red hat, made a lighthearted joke about it, and that led to conversation that only ended when Epley arrived at his stop. “And it was clear to me that was better and more enjoyable than normal,” Epley recalls.

Evidence strongly suggests that for older adults, loneliness is a health risk, associated with increased risk of premature death, dementia, heart disease, stroke, depression, and anxiety, according to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Additionally, a 2018 study from researchers then at the University of Arizona, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California at Davis finds that people who report lower well-being spend more time alone and tend to engage less in deep and meaningful conversations.

It doesn’t take much to lead people to a better, happier state. After his experience on the train, Epley and University of California at Berkeley’s Juliana Schroeder, then a PhD student at Booth, ran an actual experiment asking Chicago-area bus and train commuters to either ride as they normally would, sit quietly, or talk to the person next to them. When asked to engage, participants enjoyed connecting with others.  

Although initiating a conversation is a cheap and easy way to improve a commute or other daily chore, few will do it unprompted, which is one reason why icebreaker exercises are a staple of corporate meetings. The commuter experiment, which included a survey, identified something that keeps people quiet: miscalibrated expectations. People assume that others simply aren’t interested in talking, so they don’t initiate a conversation, and they think that they will enjoy their commute more if they keep to themselves, Epley and Schroeder find. They’re wrong on both counts.

Barriers to connecting

Across experiments, participants consistently underestimated the value of holding a deep conversation or paying someone a compliment. These miscalculations may be keeping people from reaching out to others in a meaningful way.

Yet these inaccurate expectations linger even after a conversation begins, according to further research. Northwestern postdoctoral scholar Michael Kardas (a graduate of Booth’s PhD Program), University of Texas’s Amit Kumar, and Epley recruited about 1,800 people, from business leaders to passersby at a public park, to participate in experiments in which they had to talk to each other. Moreover, the researchers randomly assigned some participants to try discussing deeper and more personal topics than they normally do when first meeting someone, and other participants to just have a typical conversation. People were especially likely to overestimate how awkward the deeper talks would be, and to underestimate how happy they would feel after them, suggesting that misguided assumptions about these more-personal conversations might make us overly reluctant to have them.

During a recent orientation session for MBA students, Epley demonstrated what typically happens when people truly engage. At the session, he asked all students in attendance to have a deep conversation with another person in the room, providing four leading questions for them to discuss, and to indicate on a survey how they expected the conversation would go. How awkward would they feel? How strong of a bond would they have with their conversation partner? Would they like the other person and enjoy the exchange? After recording their expectations, each pair of participants had 20 minutes to talk. When finished, everyone filled out a second survey in which they reported their actual experiences.

“You tended to underestimate how positively these conversations would go,” Epley told the students in a follow-up letter in which he shared the results. The conversations were far less awkward and more enjoyable than the students had expected them to be. Overall, the students reported being very open and honest in their discussions, and thought their partners were almost equally open and honest. When asked to assess their conversation’s depth, the students reported that it was much deeper than their typical one, and closer to what they would ideally like to have with strangers.

“Most of you would prefer to be having much deeper conversations with others than you typically do, although not quite as deep as the one you had in the session,” Epley concluded, encouraging the students to run their own similar experiments in their daily lives. “I think our results suggest that underestimating how positively these conversations can go creates a psychological barrier to having the kinds of meaningful conversations we would rather have more often.”

The importance of conversations

There’s also another gap at work, one that involves experiences rather than expectations. In research, it’s called a “liking gap,” and it describes the difference between how much a stranger likes you after a conversation—and how much you think they like you.

University of Pennsylvania’s Erica J. Boothby and Gus Cooney, Gillian M. Sandstrom of the University of Sussex, and Yale’s Margaret S. Clark observed people meeting for the first time in a variety of contexts. Some of their study participants met in a lab, while others were first-year college students with new dorm mates, or attendees of a personal development workshop. The researchers find that participants “systematically underestimated how much their conversation partners liked them and enjoyed their company.”

But conversations involve risk. It’s impossible to know exactly how a stranger will respond if you start a conversation, and you concoct many possible outcomes, explains Epley. “I imagine you could say hello and talk back to me,” he says. “But I also imagine you could give me the middle finger or punch me in the face, or call the police, or pull out a handgun.” The range of imagined possibilities is wide and tends to be more negative than positive. Research from Ruhr Universität Bochum’s Hans Alves, Chicago Booth’s Alex Koch, and University of Cologne’s Christian Unkelbach points to why: negative information, they find, is much more diverse than positive information. So while someone might imagine a few positive ways an interaction could go, the room to imagine negative interactions is vaster.  

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Few people appreciate that the range of actual outcomes of a conversation is narrower than we usually expect. This perception is exacerbated when we routinely pass up opportunities to talk with strangers, and we end up creating a “wicked” learning environment, a concept introduced by Robin Hogarth, an emeritus professor at Pompeu Fabra University and previously a Booth faculty member. We all learn from our experiences, Hogarth says, but we rely on immediate and accurate feedback. In some environments, however, the feedback is delayed or misleading, which makes it hard to learn from. These are wicked environments, and they are common.

When we choose whom to interact with, we only learn what it’s like to interact with our chosen groups. In this way, our beliefs about social interactions can become self-fulfilling: if you think someone won’t like talking to you, you avoid a conversation, thus never learning that your assumption was most likely wrong. (For more on how avoided interactions relate to stereotypes, see “You can shake a bad first impression.”)

Yet Epley wants to remind us that reciprocity is a powerful norm. “What actually happens when you say hi to somebody?” he asks. “What does that person normally do in return?” When you treat people nicely, they tend to return the favor. When you say hi, they will probably say it back, he says. We typically reward positive actions with equally positive behaviors and punish negative actions similarly. We regularly experience reciprocity when we interact with friends, family, and others in our social circle. But because we tend to avoid interactions with strangers, we rarely feel how powerful and common reciprocity is in conversations outside our trusted groups.

Just start with a compliment

Yet reciprocity is at work, as comedian Blake Grigsby learned when he started a series on his YouTube channel called Drive By Compliments. He had a friend drive him around Chicago while he leaned out of the car window with a megaphone, shouting compliments at strangers, including “Your hair reminds me of a sunrise and it is quite awesome.” And “Those pants work on you, sir. They look good.” After the second video in his series went viral, the then-20-year-old Grigsby told ABC News, “I feel like people are nervous to talk to strangers because they feel like they’ll be judged, or people will dislike what they say.” He saw the opposite to be true.

People seem shy to compliment not only strangers but also their loved ones. Stanford’s Xuan Zhao (previously a postdoctoral scholar at Booth) and Epley also saw smiles and thank-yous when they prompted pairs of people recruited from a public park to write and receive compliments. The pairs were not strangers to each other, but rather people who came to the park together and had known each other for an average of 10 years—friends, family, romantic partners, or married couples.

One partner in each pair was asked to write three compliments for the other focusing on “positive things you have noticed but have not, for whatever reason, had a chance to compliment your partner on yet.” The writers were told that their partners would read the compliments after they were finished.

But before the partners read the compliments, the writers completed a survey in which they predicted how the recipient would feel after reading the compliments. The writers were also asked how warm and sincere their compliments would be perceived to be, as well as how competent the recipient would find the compliments (in terms of using the “right” words and sounding articulate).

Yet again, the researchers find a gap between expectations and reality. Participants underestimated how happy the compliments would make their partners feel and overestimated how awkward they would feel giving them.

Even among the people we know best, we misunderstand the impact of a compliment. Epley says this is because we tend to evaluate our own actions in terms of our competency, whereas other people tend to evaluate us in terms of our warmth or friendliness. “If I think about approaching you in a conversation, I think ‘What am I going to say? What do I have in common with you? How am I going to manage this conversation?’ Whereas your response is ‘that guy is nice,’” Epley says. If you’re focused on how articulate you sound, or if you’re saying the right things, you will be more worried than necessary about starting a conversation or giving a compliment.

“We find that with compliments. We find that with expressing gratitude. We find that with expressing support,” Epley observes. “People tend to be focused on their own competency, whereas others are focused on their warmth, and that can cause some of this mismatch.”

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Challenge your assumptions

This mismatch is what keeps us from talking, connecting, and saying things to others that will make them smile. Worried about being judged, we avoid interactions, and our incorrect assumptions go unchallenged. If we don’t strike up a conversation with a stranger, or compliment a loved one or someone on the street, we won’t know how the other person may have responded.

The late John Cacioppo was a founder of the field of social neuroscience, which recognizes that social experiences and interactions, be they conversations with strangers or yearslong relationships, can and often do influence biological systems and have measurable health effects. He was also an expert on loneliness. “He found that lonely people were not only isolated from others, but they also had a particularly self-defeating, self-isolating set of social cognition,” Epley says. “They exaggerated how much others disliked them, which in turn caused them to withdraw further and feel even lonelier.”

This phenomenon is as evident in taxis as it is on trains. Epley and Schroeder recruited travelers waiting alone in the taxi line at Chicago Midway International Airport. In exchange for a candy bar, 93 travelers filled out a survey and then followed a set of instructions during their cab ride before mailing back a second survey.

The first survey was meant to get a sense of how often each person typically interacted with others in a cab, which could mean talking to the driver or to another passenger whom they didn’t know. About two-thirds of the participants reported that they often talked to their cab drivers. The researchers labeled them “talkers” and the other third “loners.” Both talkers and loners were instructed to talk to their driver during their ride.

The results of the second survey reveal that both talkers and loners were, on average, happier talking than when they were quiet. Presumably the talkers already knew this. But it may have been news to the loners, who had said they would feel awkward trying to talk to their cab driver and would be better off staying silent. “The folks who are most wrong are also the folks who are most avoidant, the folks who have the least information and the least experience,” Epley says.

By routinely avoiding conversation, people maintain mistaken beliefs. In this case, an experiment prompted them to challenge their notions. But in the absence of that, how is it possible to get people to make a different choice, the one that will make them happier? It’s not necessary to drive around shouting compliments at strangers, nor to ask intimate questions of passersby and ask to take their photograph. Epley has a different recommendation: next time you’re on a train, leave your ear buds in their case and ask a fellow passenger where they’re headed. The conversation might lead nowhere. But, he says, it will probably go better than you think—and likely surprise you both.

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