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Why You Should Talk to Strangers

The benefits of "Vitamin S."

Key points

  • Weak ties may have a strong effect on our well-being.
  • Initiating social contact with strangers may improve your sense of well-being.
  • Relationships need not be deep or lasting to have a positive impact on health.
Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

It is by now a well-established fact that social connections powerfully predict both physical and mental health while social isolation constitutes a detriment to health on the order of obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure.

This link is not merely correlational. Evidence suggests strongly that social interaction and relationships in fact cause improvements in health and well-being. As Jessica Martino of Tufts University and colleagues write: “Humans are wired to connect, and this connection affects our health. From psychological theories to recent research, there is significant evidence that social support and feeling connected can help people maintain a healthy body mass index, control blood sugars, improve cancer survival, decrease cardiovascular mortality, decrease depressive symptoms, mitigate posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, and improve overall mental health.”

A recent (2021) review of the literature by the psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University concluded: “The influence of social relationships extends beyond emotional well-being to influence long-term physical-health outcomes, including mortality risk.”

Research has identified several mechanisms that explain this link. One such mechanism appears to be that social ties influence health behavior. Whether we smoke, exercise, or keep our doctor’s appointments depends heavily on what others around us—our friends, family, and intimate partners—are doing (or want us to do). If your spouse insists that you get checked, you’re more likely to do it. If all your friends have quit smoking, you’re more likely to do that, too, etc.

Another mechanism of influence is through the psychological benefits of social support, which may serve to attenuate the effects of stress and offer one a sense of purpose, hope, and meaning, thus nurturing psychological resilience. “How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved,” wrote Sigmund Freud. Indeed.

Social connections have also been shown to impact our physiological systems. As University of Texas sociologists Debra Umberson and Jennifer Karas Montez note: “[S]upportive interactions with others benefit immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular functions and reduce allostatic load, which reflects wear and tear on the body due, in part, to chronically overworked physiological systems engaged in stress responses… Emotionally supportive childhood environments promote the healthy development of regulatory systems, including immune, metabolic, and autonomic nervous systems, as well as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, with long-term consequences for adult health... Social support in adulthood reduces physiological responses such as cardiovascular reactivity to both anticipated and existing stressors.”

The literature on social connections has focused heavily (and understandably) on "strong ties"—our close, meaningful, and long-lasting relationships. But what about "weak ties"—fleeting, casual, or one-time-only encounters with strangers? In a recent (2021) article, European psychologists Paul Van Lange and Simon Columbus attempt to answer that intriguing question.

The authors ground their investigation in Social Interdependence Theory, a model that focuses on several key aspects of human interaction in making predictions about individual behavior. These include:

  • Conflict of Interest, which refers to whether an interaction is marked by conflicting or converging, aligned interests.
  • Mutual Dependence, which refers to the degree to which the people in the interaction are autonomous of, or dependent on, each other.
  • Relative Power, which refers to whether one person in the interaction holds power over the other.

As you can see, differences in each of these dimensions may predict different interpersonal behaviors and outcomes: I may be more likely to cooperate with you if we share like interests, are mutually dependent on each other, and have equal power. A high-conflict situation in which I possess low power, and am thus dependent on you, may spell potential trouble for me.

Looking to assess encounters with strangers through the prism of the theory, the authors first summarize evidence to the fact that most interactions with strangers are characterized by aligned rather than conflicting interests, by moderate levels of mutual dependence, and by relative equality of power. Thus, on average, “interactions with strangers are fairly benign, in that interpersonal harm is unlikely because it could hardly be motivated by self-interest or by unilateral abuse of power.”

The authors argue that since encounters with strangers are generally characterized by low conflict, they are likely to elicit kind, prosocial behaviors. They cite research on “social mindfulness”—one’s ability to notice, anticipate, and accommodate the needs of another person in a social situation—showing that people overall will, for example, forego the last piece of chicken at the hotel buffet so as not to potentially deprive those who follow in line. Research has shown that most people tend toward this kind of socially mindful behavior during casual, low-stakes interactions with strangers.

So, interactions with strangers are likely to be positive when the stakes are low. But what about when the stakes are higher? Well, research indicates that the same pattern sustains: “Evidence from across the world indicates that people show significant levels of high-cost helpfulness or cooperation, especially when strangers are in need. They are willing to give to noble causes, to reward acts of kindness, and to cooperate in social dilemmas… When researchers dropped 17,000 wallets around the world, many of them were returned… Perhaps most strikingly, in all but one country, the likelihood that a wallet would be returned was increased when it contained money.“

The authors argue that interactions with strangers, like other so-called “weak ties,” benefit well-being in part by creating opportunities for getting good advice and useful information. For example, they cite research showing that most people find a job through casual acquaintances rather than through intimate or close contacts.

Specifically, the authors propose that interactions with strangers promote well-being for three main reasons:

  1. Communication with strangers is psychologically safe in that “strangers are far less likely to spread private information because they are unlikely to be part of one’s social network.”
  2. Encounters with strangers can expand one's horizons. "Strangers are more likely than family or friends to be dissimilar in their background, attitudes, or opinions. This may yield gains in information (e.g., exposure to new perspectives) and amusement or excitement (e.g., exposure to unusual, novel events).”
  3. Interactions with strangers provide potential openings for various types of gains. “Interactions with strangers may have the benefit of being more likely to provide opportunities, such as suggestions or advice regarding job opportunities, a chance to learn broader skills, or a starting point for beneficial exchange or extension of one’s social network.”

The authors conclude: “in times of COVID-19, it is advisable to initiate brief interactions—even a smile—with strangers, especially when one is low on Vitamin S (i.e., when one has been deprived of social contact for a fair amount of time).”

For better mental health, go ahead and talk to strangers.

LinkedIn image: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock. Facebook image: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

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