David Brooks: Why your social life is not what it should be

If a bunch of people are lonely, why don’t they just hang out together?

(Karsten Moran | The New York Times) Subway riders in Manhattan on June 16, 2022. You'll enjoy talking to strangers a lot more than you think you will, as David Brooks writes.

One day Nicholas Epley was commuting by train to his office at the University of Chicago. As a behavioral scientist he’s well aware that social connection makes us happier, healthier and more successful and generally contributes to the sweetness of life. Yet he looked around his train car and realized: Nobody is talking to anyone! It was just headphones and newspapers.

Questions popped into his head: What the hell are we all doing here? Why don’t people do the thing that makes them the most happy?

He discovered that one of the reasons people are reluctant to talk to strangers on a train or plane is they don’t think it will be enjoyable. They believe it will be awkward, dull and tiring. In an online survey only 7% of people said they would talk to a stranger in a waiting room. Only 24% said they would talk to a stranger on a train.

But are these expectations correct? Epley and his team have conducted years of research on this. They ask people to make predictions going into social encounters. Then, afterward, they ask them how it had gone.

They found that most of us are systematically mistaken about how much we will enjoy a social encounter. Commuters expected to have less pleasant rides if they tried to strike up a conversation with a stranger. But their actual experience was precisely the opposite. People randomly assigned to talk with a stranger enjoyed their trips consistently more than those instructed to keep to themselves. Introverts sometimes go into these situations with particularly low expectations, but both introverts and extroverts tended to enjoy conversations more than riding solo.

It turns out many of us wear ridiculously negative anti-social filters. Epley and his team found that people underestimate how positively others will respond when they reach out to express support. Research led by Stav Atir and Kristina Wald showed that most people underestimate how much they will learn from conversations with strangers.

In other research, people underestimated how much they would enjoy longer conversations with new acquaintances. People underestimated how much they’re going to enjoy deeper conversations compared to shallower conversations. They underestimated how much they would like the person. They underestimated how much better their conversation would be if they moved to a more intimate communications media — talking on the phone rather than texting. In settings ranging from public parks to online, people underestimated how positively giving a compliment to another person would make the recipient feel.

We’re an extremely social species, but many of us suffer from what Epley calls undersociality. We see the world in anxiety-drenched ways that cause us to avoid social situations that would be fun, educational and rewarding.

It’s not just talking to strangers. Epley and his team asked people to compliment a friend or a family member. People consistently underestimated how positively their recipients would react.

In one experiment visitors to a skating rink in downtown Chicago were given a coupon for a cup of hot chocolate and were asked to give it away to a stranger. The givers anticipated that the gift would make the others feel good, but they underestimated how “big” this gesture would feel to the other person.

Many of these misperceptions are based on a deeper misperception. It’s about how people are seeing you. Entering into a conversation, especially with strangers, is hard. People go in with doubts about their own competence: Will they be able to start a conversation well, or communicate their thoughts effectively?

But research suggests that when people are looking at you during a conversation, they are not primarily thinking about your competence. They are thinking about your warmth. Do you seem friendly, kind and trustworthy? They just want to know you care.

Epley’s research illuminates a mystery I’ve been thinking about for a while. Many of us have been writing about the breakdown of social relationships. Books now appear with titles like “The Lonely Century,” “The Crisis of Connection,” and “Lost Connections.”

But mass loneliness is a perversity. If a bunch of people are lonely, why don’t they just hang out together? Maybe it’s because people approach potential social encounters with unrealistically anxious and negative expectations. Maybe if we understood this, we could alter our behavior.

My general view is that the fate of America will be importantly determined by how we treat each other in the smallest acts of daily life. That means being a genius at the close at hand: greeting a stranger, detecting the anxiety in somebody’s voice and asking what’s wrong, knowing how to talk across difference. More lives are diminished by the slow and frigid death of social closedness than by the short and glowing risk of social openness.

The question is, can we get better? I spoke to Epley about his work last week and found it extremely compelling. Then this week I was on a plane and found myself … putting on headphones. But Epley assures me that this research has transformed how he lives. Once you get used to filling your day with social exercise, it gets easier and easier, and more and more fun.

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) New York Times columnist David Brooks at the University of Chicago, Jan. 19, 2012.

David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.