When I taught the graduate course, “Singles in society,” years ago, one of the assignments was for students to go out for a meal by themselves. The students were totally into it. They upped the ante: It had to be dinner, not lunch. And then they upped it again: They could not bring anything to distract them during dinner, such as something to read or to look at. They had to just dine on their own.
One undergraduate persuaded me to let her into this graduate class, and when she told her friends about the assignment, they were horrified. They could not imagine going out to dinner by themselves.
The graduate students, and the aghast friends of the undergraduates, were all onto something. Their intuitions have been supported by a series of studies reported by a pair of marketing researchers.
Going Out Alone, Just for Fun? No, Thank You
People are reluctant to do things, just for fun, in public by themselves. Asked about the possibility of going out to dinner or going to a movie in a theater, they express more interest in the experience, and expect to enjoy it more, if they are going to go with friends than if they are going to be alone.
Their reluctance can be explained, at least in part, by how they think they will be viewed by other people. If they are out in restaurants or movie theaters by themselves, they think others will look at them and assume they don’t have many friends. That’s probably why my undergraduate’s friends were horrified at the thought of going out to dinner alone – they thought other people would see them as losers.
The researchers found that the reluctance to go to a movie theater alone (compared to going with friends) and the expectation of being judged harshly for doing so, was not just true of people in the U.S. People in India and China shared the same psychology of being alone in public.
Out Alone for a Purpose (Not Just for Fun)? That Sounds Better
My students who insisted on taking the assignment to the next level, by prohibiting themselves from bringing reading materials or any other semblance of work, were correct in their intuitions that going out in public just to enjoy yourself would be more difficult. For example, in one of the studies, participants imagined being in a coffee shop just having a drink, or they imagined doing some work while they were there. And, as usual, they imagined doing those things either on their own or with friends.
If they were going to be alone in the coffee shop, they preferred to be working. They thought they would enjoy the experience more when they were working than when they were just sipping their drink. They also thought others would judge them more harshly (as a person who has few friends) when they were just sipping than when they were sipping and working.
The psychology flipped when they imagined being at the coffee shop with friends. They thought they’d enjoy it more if they were all just hanging out than if they were working. They expected to be viewed more positively by others, too, if they were just hanging out than if they were working.
The concern with what others might be thinking seemed to be paramount. In another one of the studies, participants were asked to imagine that they were going out to a movie either by themselves or with friends. Did they prefer to see the movie on a Saturday night or a Sunday? At a time when the theater was full or when it was not so full?
You can probably guess the results. Participants would prefer to go to the theater on a Sunday night, and to a less crowded theater, if they were going to be on their own. They preferred Saturday night, and a full theater, if they were with friends. The people who were going to the movie alone did not want to be seen, and they figured there was a better chance of escaping the notice of other people on a Sunday night when the theater was less crowded.
One of the interesting things about these studies is that they show that people are not always reluctant to be alone in public. In the coffee shop study, for example, when people had the cover of doing work, they were not so hesitant to be there on their own. Another study showed that when people were out in public for some practical reason, such as getting groceries or getting some exercise, they actually preferred being on their own than with friends.
Home Alone Watching Movies or Playing Video Games? Now That’s Just Fine
Readers of this blog probably already know that people who are single at heart savor their time alone; they don’t dread it. The research on the psychology of being alone found that even for people more generally (not just those who are single-at-heart), there are experiences they look forward to enjoying by themselves. For example, people are generally more interested in watching movies at home, or playing video games on their computers, by themselves than with their friends. They think they’d enjoy those experiences more that way.
But Wait – How Do People Actually Feel When Alone in Public?
In all the studies I’ve described so far, people were asked to imagine how they would feel in various situations. That’s important, because if you think about going out to dinner or a movie by yourself, and you get a bad feeling about it, you might not go. But what if you did end up going? How would you feel then?
In the most important study in the whole series of studies conducted by the marketing researchers, people went out in public alone or with their friends. I’ll tell you about the results of that one in Part 2 of this 2-part post. (Here it is.)
Ratner, R. K., & Hamilton, R. W. (2015). Inhibited from bowling alone. Journal of Consumer Research, 42, 266-283.
[Take a look at my TEDX talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single,” if you are interested. Also, this collection of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life is always available. Check out my website, too, if you’d like.]