In-depth conversations with strangers can have surprising results, study finds


When we really want to connect with others, we usually limit ourselves to family and close friends. Opening up to a stranger would probably seem like a daunting prospect for most of us, but it seems our expectations don’t always match up with reality.

New research suggests that people’s expectations about their interactions with strangers do not match the results of those interactions: People believed that in-depth conversations with strangers would be more awkward and less satisfying than they actually were.

Over 1,800 participants took part in a series of experiments that measured people’s expectations and outcomes from a range of “deep” and “shallow” conversations with strangers and known confidants.

In the first set of experiments, participants reported how they expected to feel after having an in-depth conversation with a stranger. They then reported on what they really felt after the interview.

This gave the researchers a comparison of expectations versus actual experience. Researchers provided questions that encouraged vulnerable subjects like, “Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?” ”

From this first set of experiences, participants were likely to underestimate their own interest in listening to a stranger and how much they perceived their partner would be interested in their own responses. The embarrassment was not as present as the participants thought, and they also felt more connected and happier than expected.

Other sets of experiments compared shallow conversations with deeper conversations (by manipulating the privacy of conversations with prompts) while also comparing conversations between known family and friends with strangers.

Participants’ expectations were more specific for more in-depth conversations with close friends or family, whose care and interest is more assured.

The researchers wanted to see whether participants were likely to misunderstand the results of in-depth conversations with strangers, whether relatively deeper conversations with strangers would build stronger connections, and whether people’s expectations of interest and care would create. psychological barriers to having more meaningful conversations with strangers.

“Our experiments test whether people consistently underestimate the care and concerns of others in the context of deep conversations,” the article’s authors explain.

Participants also chose deeper questions when they expected a more caring partner, supporting the authors’ hypothesis that a person’s miscalibrated expectations about the sociality of others can be a psychological barrier to conversations. more in-depth with strangers.

The general well-being of people is deeply linked to the quality of their social relationships. So it doesn’t seem surprising that we have strong desires to build and maintain strong relationships.

We often achieve such relationships through intimate and vulnerable conversations. Study participants even said they wanted to have deeper interactions in their daily lives than they currently have.

But if people want more in-depth conversations with others, why don’t they have them?

“Our data suggests that underestimating the deeply social nature of others – assuming that others will be more indifferent and indifferent in the conversation than they actually are – might help explain why conversations in everyday life are less. deep that people might prefer, ”suggest the authors.

Although these conversations took place in a laboratory and under supervision, the researchers believe these findings may be generalized to more familiar contexts of our daily lives.

“Previous research in the US and UK indicates that people may underestimate the willingness of strangers to engage in conversation during naturalistic field experiences on trains, buses and taxis. “, say the authors.

“Our experiments may provide a more conservative test of whether people underestimate the value of deep conversations over more natural conversations.”

The authors also wonder how these effects may vary from culture to culture, with different cultures having different views on their openness to strangers and how some may prioritize relationships within the group.

So the next time you share a space with a stranger for an extended period of time, ask them about their life and try not to revert to your default weather commentary. Who knows, you might even make a new friend.

The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition.


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