An anthropological wave has taken place, first in Asia that has now spread worldwide - humans, the most social species on the planet, have begun to gather in groups and ignore each other while communicating wirelessly with people doing the same ignoring of real people elsewhere.

The trend of sitting inches away on a train from other people and routinely ignoring each other while using social media is a social paradox. Why can such social agents be so antisocial?

A paper by University of Chicago Booth School of Business Professor Nicholas Epley and co-author Juliana Schroeder found that  participants in experiments not only underestimated others’ interest in connecting, but also reported positive experiences by both being spoken to and to speaking with a stranger.

Social media is not always social - but it should be, says a new paper. Image: Wharton School of Business.

This is in defiance of the claims of most airline travelers, who want nothing less than to speak to or be spoken to by fellow travelers. Perhaps it's train culture. 

"Connecting with strangers on a train may not bring the same long-term benefits as connecting with friends," Epley states,"but commuters on a train into downtown Chicago reported a significantly more positive commute when they connected with a stranger than when they sat in solitude."

Though participants reported greater well-being when they did engage with strangers, they predicted precisely the opposite pattern of experiences, according to Epley, which demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the psychological consequences of social engagement.

"This misunderstanding is particularly unfortunate for a person's well-being given that commuting is consistently reported to be one of the least pleasant experiences in the average person's day," Epley says. "This experiment suggests that a surprising antidote for an otherwise unpleasant experience could be sitting very close by."

The researchers conducted nine experiments, in both field and laboratory settings, to examine an apparent social paradox: why people who benefit greatly from social connection nevertheless prefer isolation among strangers. Participants were commuter train and public bus riders who were asked to talk to a stranger, to sit in solitude, or to do whatever they normally would do, then fill out a survey to measure the actual consequences of distant social engagement versus isolation.

"Participants in the connection condition reported having the most positive experience out of all three of our experimental conditions. Most important, participants in the connection condition reported having a significantly more positive experience than participants in the solitude condition," according to Epley.

Article: "Mistakenly Seeking Solitude" in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Source: The University of Chicago Booth School of Business