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The Unexpected Upside of Talking to Strangers

Conversations with people you don't know can teach you a surprising amount.


Learning novel information is, for many people, one of life’s great joys, and conversing with others—especially those we don’t know well—is among the most effective ways to gain new knowledge in daily life. But a common misunderstanding could be stopping us from learning from the people around us, new research warns, unless we take steps to overcome it.

Study participants engaged in brief conversations with people they hadn’t previously met, predicting beforehand how much they and their conversation partners would learn. Conversations with strangers were found to be surprisingly informative, in that participants consistently underestimated how much they would learn from the exchanges.

Their miscalculation didn’t appear to come from a belief that strangers don’t have much knowledge to share; indeed, participants generally predicted that they would learn more from their conversation partner than vice versa. Nor did it stem from a lack of motivation; even participants who were explicitly instructed to try to learn as much as possible still exceeded their own expectations.

Instead, the miscalibration appeared to be due to the inherent uncertainty of casual conversations with strangers. Because they tend to be open-ended, notes study author Stav Atir, an assistant professor at the Wisconsin School of Business, it's hard for us to imagine just how they’ll unfold.

A stranger’s knowledge base is similarly opaque. “In the abstract, we’re aware that [strangers] have valuable knowledge,” Atir says—but what exactly that is, or the likelihood of it coming up organically, is uncertain. “When people don’t know what they will learn, they underestimate how much they will learn.”

Past research has found that we also underestimate how much we’ll enjoy a conversation and how much talking to strangers can boost feelings of connectedness. This may be because we have relatively little experience to draw on, Atir speculates: “When was the last time you struck up a conversation with someone you didn’t know?” Such miscalibrated beliefs can be somewhat “sticky,” she says, but “can be overwhelmed with sufficient experience.”

The solution, then, is simple: practice, practice, practice. “The more you talk to others, the more you’ll eventually calibrate your beliefs about the benefits of conversation,” Atir says. Next time you’re on a bus, or in line at the pharmacy, it may be tempting to keep to yourself, but “Go forth and talk to people,” she advises. You just might learn something.

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