Human beings are social creatures, but many people fear social interactions with strangers due to worries about rejection. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology explores an intervention that may make people more comfortable talking to strangers.
Social interaction is very important and has many well-documented benefits, such as increased happiness, better health, and stronger sense of belonging. Despite this, many people are apprehensive about socializing with new people. This is due in large part to pessimism and fear of rejection.
Though many people have this pervasive fear, research has shown that most strangers are perfectly happy to be spoken to, leaving this common fear unfounded. The new study sought to explore an intervention to make people feel more comfortable and more confident talking to strangers.
“People are remarkably pessimistic about the prospect of talking to strangers. Our novel ‘talking to strangers’ intervention aimed to reduce people’s fears about talking to strangers by prompting them to repeatedly have conversations with strangers over the course of five days,” wrote Gillian M. Sandstrom and her colleagues.
The researchers utilized 286 participants recruited from two universities: one in the United States and one in the United Kingdom. Participants either received course credit or were paid to participate. Researchers created a scavenger hunt game for participants to complete using a mobile app. Each of the 29 tasks instructed participants to find a player who fit the description listed, such as drinking coffee or having interesting shoes on.
For each completed task, participants earned points and were put into a draw for a prize. Participants in the experimental condition were instructed to talk to the stranger, while controls were told to simply observe the stranger. Participants completed general and daily surveys before and after their tasks for the five days of the experiment.
Results showed that this intervention changed the perspective of the participants. The participants who were assigned to talk to strangers felt less awkward, more confident, and anticipated less rejection by the last day of the study. These results continued for at least a week following the end of the study, with the treatment condition reporting more conversations with strangers.
People’s beliefs changed slowly throughout the course of the study, showing that repeat exposure was a significant factor in making this intervention effective. Additionally, the control condition showed some improvements in the same dimensions, showing that even without interaction, observing strangers may have some social benefits.
“Our intervention may have special relevance now, as a growing number of scientists and public health officials are raising the alarm about increasing levels of loneliness, and the dire health consequences,” the researchers said.
This study took important and interesting steps into conceptualizing an intervention that may have profound social benefits. Despite this, there are some limitations to note. One such limitation is that the researchers asked participants to remember their number of conversations with strangers in the week following the experiment, however instructions were not clear and those results may not be reliable.
Additionally, the participants in this study were university students, a group of which many people are forced to interact with strangers to some degree. Future research could utilize a community sample.
“Ultimately, our novel ‘talking to strangers’ intervention was successful, providing evidence that repeated experience talking to strangers can reduce people’s fears about talking to strangers, and make them more accurate in their predictions about future conversations,” Sandstrom and her colleagues concluded.
“At its heart, our intervention is simple: it involves repeatedly approaching and talking to strangers. As such, this intervention is something that many people could self-administer. We encourage readers to try it, despite any natural instinct to avoid such interactions—which even the authors confess to sharing. As our research shows, these conversations really do get easier with practice, and the experience will be more positive than you expect.”
The study, “Talking to strangers: A week-long intervention reduces psychological barriers to social connection“, was authored by Gillian M. Sandstrom, Erica J. Boothby, and Gus Cooney.