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Talking to strangers makes us happy

Talking to strangers makes us happy

Suggestion: Go against instinct. Talk to that stranger at church. You both will likely enjoy it.

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.

Why do we think chatting to strangers will be so unpleasant? To find out, the researchers approached more commuters on Chicago trains and buses. One possibility is that people’s predictions are skewed by the dominance of memories of past negative experiences. To test this, the researchers asked commuters to imagine having a positive conversation with a stranger, a negative conversation, or just any conversation. If memories of bad experiences skew people’s perceptions, then being asked to imagine any conversation with a stranger should be negatively toned by default. In fact no evidence was found for this.

Another possibility is that each of us mistakenly assumes that other people don’t want to talk, thus creating a situation of “pluralistic ignorance”. This theory was supported: people said they were more interested in chatting to strangers, than strangers would be in chatting to them. Also, they predicted that over 50 per cent of strangers would likely rebuff their attempts to talk – in fact, this didn’t occur for any of the participants who were instructed to chat to stranger in the earlier studies.

Read it all in the BPS Research Digest.


“NYC subway riders with their newspapers” by Travis Ruse, cropped by GallifreyanPostman at en.wikipedia – © Travis Ruse(Transferred from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here.). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –


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