Connecting with others increases happiness, but strangers in close proximity routinely ignore each other. Why? Two reasons seem likely: Either solitude is a more positive experience than interacting with strangers, or people misunderstand the consequences of distant social connections. To examine the experience of connecting to strangers, we instructed commuters on trains and buses to connect with a stranger near them, to remain disconnected, or to commute as normal (Experiments 1a and 2a). In both contexts, participants reported a more positive (and no less productive) experience when they connected than when they did not. Separate participants in each context, however, expected precisely the opposite outcome, predicting a more positive experience in solitude (Experiments 1b and 2b). This mistaken preference for solitude stems partly from underestimating others’ interest in connecting (Experiments 3a and 3b), which in turn keeps people from learning the actual consequences of social interaction (Experiments 4a and 4b). The pleasure of connection seems contagious: In a laboratory waiting room, participants who were talked to had equally positive experiences as those instructed to talk (Experiment 5). Human beings are social animals. Those who misunderstand the consequences of social interactions may not, in at least some contexts, be social enough for their own well-being.
Epley, N., & Schroeder, J. (2014, July 14). Mistakenly Seeking Solitude. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication.