In my previous post in this 2-part series, I described the results of a series of studies on the psychology of being alone in public. In the studies from Part 1, participants imagined how they would feel in various settings (such as restaurants and movie theaters) when they were alone compared to when they were with other people. Those kinds of studies tell us what people expect to feel, but they don’t tell us how they really do feel.
In the key study from the article I’ve been describing, participants were recruited from the student union to visit the university art gallery. Students who were by themselves at the student union went to the gallery by themselves and students who were with a friend went to the gallery with their friend. (That’s not ideal, methodologically; random assignment would have been better.) The art gallery had glass walls, so other people could easily see the students as they looked at the exhibit.
Before they left the student union for the art gallery, the participants were asked to predict how they would feel. As in the other studies, the students who were headed to the gallery on their own thought that they would enjoy it less than the students who were going there with a friend. They also expressed less interest in attending similar exhibits. Also consistent with the other studies in which participants only imagined what their experience would be like, the people who were going to the gallery alone, more so than those going with a friend, thought that other people would judge them harshly.
After the participants spent time in the art gallery, they were asked the same questions again. Now, there were hardly any differences! The students who spent time at the art gallery on their own enjoyed it every bit as much as the students who went there with a friend. They were equally interested in seeing similar exhibits in the future. And the difference between the students who were alone and those who were with a friend, in their guesses about how other people judged them, was smaller than it was before.
The moral of this research is that we probably worry too much about doing things alone. We think we won’t enjoy the experience, but we may well enjoy it just as much as we would with friends.
That concern that we have about other people judging us harshly if they see us alone doing fun things in public? That’s probably unwarranted. One of the very first studies I ever did that was relevant to single life was about how people in restaurants are judged by others, depending on whether they are alone or with others. My colleagues and I conducted a very elaborate study, in which we photographed different sets of people sitting at a booth in a restaurant. There were always two men and two women. Then we photoshopped the photos, so that each person sometimes appeared to be dining alone, sometimes with a person of the other gender, sometimes with a person of the same gender, sometimes with two of the three other people, and sometimes with everyone (likely seen as two couples).
Then we recruited lots of people to look at the photos and tell us what they thought. We expected them to judge the people dining alone most harshly. We were surprised – but also happy – to find that we were wrong. People sometimes did say dismissive and unkind things about the solo diners, but they were just as likely to say dismissive and unkind things about the exact same people pictured with one other person (as if they were there as a couple) or more than one person. Sometimes the judges said nice things. That, too, was just as likely to happen when the person in the photo appeared to be dining alone as when the same person was pictured with another person or persons.
Next time you are considering doing something on your own but you are feeling hesitant, know that research has a suggestion for you: Try it. You will probably like it.
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. Here’s something else I just published a few days ago: “Single workers aren’t there to pick up the slack for their married bosses and coworkers.”]