We need to talk
From a blog on Behavioural Scientist
Nicholas Epley is the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavior Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
In a study by Professor Epley involving commuters in Chicago, people who had to strike up conversations on the commute later reported feeling happier than those who didn’t. In the experiment, commuters in Chicago were asked to either talk with a stranger on a train, or sit quietly alone, or just do whatever they’d normally do on their commute. Then, they responded to a survey about how they felt.
Turns out those who engaged with strangers had the most pleasurable experience and those who remained solitary had the least enjoyable experience. These answers were compared with another group that did not participate but instead had to predict how they might feel in each situation. This group thought talking with strangers would be the least enjoyable, by far.
So despite being social animals and enjoying social engagement, we avoid chatting with strangers. Why? Well, according to a follow up study it’s because we think, wrongly, that strangers don’t want to talk with us. The one way to get over this is to practice reaching out – who knows, commuting could become more enjoyable.
Nicholas Epley comments, "We did studies on trains and buses, and cabs around Chicago because we noticed an interesting phenomena. You have members of the planet’s most social species getting on the train each morning and instead of treating each other like fellow human beings they tended to treat each other like rocks. You’ll be sitting cheek to jowl with somebody, as you might on a plane, and very few people actually ever talk. In fact, on the train it’s almost never unless you know the person to begin with. The frequency of talking with a stranger is just shockingly low.
"This puzzled us, and we’re interested in understanding why people might do this. There are two possibilities. One possibility is that talking with a stranger really does suck. It’s just not any fun, they’re not very interesting, and you’d actually feel better, well-being would be higher, if you sat there by yourself than if you talked. The other possibility is that people are just wrong about the consequences of social connection. That in fact, you’d be quite a bit happier if you engaged the person next to you in conversation than if you sit there in solitude, and people’s expectations are just misguided.
"So we ran some studies. The first ones we ran were on a train line coming into Chicago. [The] second set, to see if we could replicate those original findings, were done on buses in downtown Chicago. We randomly assigned [people] on their train commute to either talk to the person sitting next to them, to sit in solitude with their own thoughts (enjoy their time alone), or to do whatever they normally do. We found that people who actually engaged a stranger in a conversation reported having the most positive experience, and those who sat in solitude with their own thoughts, like nearly everybody else does on the train, reported the least positive experience. We found the same thing on buses. It doesn’t seem that talking to strangers is unpleasant. In fact, it’s more pleasant that sitting there by yourself. So then the question is why do people do it?
"When we asked a separate group of participants, who were also traveling on the trains or the buses downtown, to predict how they would feel if they started a conversation with a person sitting next to them versus sat in solitude, they actually predicted exactly the opposite of what we found when we had people go out and do this. They predicted that they would have the best time, the most positive experience sitting there in solitude than talking with a stranger. They were behaving in ways that were in line with their expectations. Their expectations about the social interaction were just flat out wrong.
"It’s not so much that people themselves aren’t social, it’s that they look at other people and think that person doesn’t want to talk to me. That’s a particularly interesting belief, because it’s a belief that serves as a barrier to finding out that you could be wrong. If you’re sitting next to me on a train and you don’t look like you’re interested in talking to me, I don’t talk. I never find out that I could be wrong. That in fact, if I started up a conversation you would be happy to talk to me. You might even find that more pleasant than doing whatever it is you would otherwise be doing.
"This lead to an interesting prediction which was that the barrier, the reason why our expectations are miscalibrated on this, is not because we’re not social, but because we think others aren’t. This means that the barrier is one of failing to learn. I don’t start up these conversations and so I don’t learn that my expectations are wrong. Nobody learns that they’d be better doing something else."
What’s the best way to start a conversation?
Professor Epley says it’s tiny things. Just ask a simple question or a comment e.g. the weather. And that’s it. That’s all you need. It’s like a little spark that lights a fire. Who knows where this might lead?
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