Why (non-creepy) eye contact with strangers is a good thing
New research suggests doing your fellow humans a favor and acknowledging strangers you pass on the street: findings reveal that a smile or a simple nod, rather than deliberately ignoring someone or worse, staring straight through them, helps people feel less lonely and more connected.
"Ostracism is painful," study researcher Eric Wesselmann, a social psychologist at Purdue University in Indiana, told Live Science. "Sometimes, colloquially, I like to say ostracism sucks. It's not a pleasant experience."
He and his team presented their findings, published in February in the journal Psychological Science, at an annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Motivation in Chicago last week.
To reach their findings, Wesselmann and his team set up an experiment on a well-populated campus area. A research assistant walked along a busy path, picked a subject, and either met that person's eyes, met their eyes and smiled, or looked in the direction of the person's eyes, but past them -- "looking at them as if they were air," Wesselmann described.
After the person passed, another researcher stopped the subject and asked him or her to fill out a quick survey on social connectedness, with questions such as "Within the last minute, how disconnected do you feel from others?" Meanwhile, the subject remained uninformed that the person they just passed was connected to the survey.
The survey results showed that being ignored by a stranger had a significant emotional impact, with those receiving the distant stare relaying stronger feelings of isolation.
Granted, as Live Science reports, every city and country has its own set of street rules. For instance, smiling at strangers on a Paris or New York subway may be met with a certain disdain, or perhaps encourage unwanted advances. Yet in other cities, it is considered simply polite.
But regional differences aside, researchers acknowledge that staring right through someone is "off-putting anywhere." And in any case, loneliness and isolation is considered a growing problem in countries such as the US, the UK, and Japan, according to media reports.
John Cacioppo, Ph.D., author of several books including Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection and professor at the University of Chicago, suggests that extending yourself is vital to feeling less lonely -- get involved with a charity or class, or volunteer your time to meet new people outside your usual realm.
He also recommends thinking more positively. Optimism will draw a more consistent and positive response from others and help reinforce social connectedness. As you become more open and positive about new situations and people, subtle changes can happen in your attitude and perception of loneliness, he says -- and perhaps you may even find yourself smiling at strangers throughout your day.