CHICAGO: Believe it or not, people who have been acknowledged by a stranger feel connected to others, says a recent study. So the next time you're out walking about, you may want to give passers-by a smile, or at least a nod.
These tiny gestures can make people feel more connected, says the study reported at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Motivation.
“Ostracism is painful,” said study researcher Dr Eric Wesselmann, a social psychologist at Purdue University in Indiana. “It's not a pleasant experience.”
The pain is psychological, but it can also extend to the physical. Studies have linked loneliness to a weakened immune system and a hardening of the arteries, for example.
And a variety of laboratory experiments have shown that when a person is excluded, even if for a brief time in something as inconsequential as a silly computer game, they feel worse about themselves and experience an all-around sour mood.
If that's the case, people should be very tuned-in to clues about social acceptance and rejection. Dr Wesselmann and his colleagues decided to conduct a subtle experiment to find out.
Their participants, 239 pedestrians in a busy campus area, didn't even know they were part of a study. They simply passed by someone who acknowledged them politely, acknowledged them with a smile or stared straight through them as if they weren't even there.
The researchers were aiming to create a feeling the Germans call ‘wie Luft behandeln’, or “to be looked at as though air”.
Immediately after this encounter, the unknowing participants got waylaid by another person who asked them to fill out a survey on social connectedness. The participants had no idea that the stranger who had just passed them was part of this study. A fourth group of participants filled out the survey without ever encountering the stranger at all.
The survey results showed that being pointedly ignored by a stranger had an immediate effect. Participants who'd gotten the cold shoulder reported feeling more socially disconnected than people who'd gotten acknowledged, whether that acknowledgement came with a smile or not. People who hadn't encountered the stranger fell somewhere in the middle.