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If You Dine Alone, What Will People Think of You? PART 1: See If You Can Predict the Results

Test your psychological acumen: How are solo diners perceived?

On a beautiful summer evening at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, back when I lived on the East Coast, I stopped for dinner at an outdoor café. My server lingered a while each time she appeared, offering conversation along with the refills of my iced tea. I wondered - did she think I was uncomfortable dining alone?

In fact, I was feeling serene. I had spent a busy, boisterous day with three guys I adore - one of my brothers and his two sons. They had already left. I wanted to stay and savor in solitude the warm breezes, fresh seafood, and the parade of people passing by.

It wasn't just my server who seemed surprised and a bit protective of her lone diner. The hostess who seated me also did the solo-diner double take, glancing an extra time or two to see whether there really was someone else with me, who had just wandered off for a moment. At least she did not ask the "just one?" question. (Nor did a spotlight follow me to my table, as happened to Steve Martin in The Lonely Guy.)

While people-watching, it struck me that no one else seemed to be at the Inner Harbor on their own. I observed intently for 20 minutes, and never spotted even one person who seemed to be there without another person or group alongside them. Wasn't there anyone else within driving distance of the Inner Harbor who would have enjoyed heading off on their own to saunter around on such a perfect evening?

I have always thought it odd that in a nation supposedly known for its rugged individualists and daring adventurers, so many people seem reluctant to venture on their own into safe and comfortable places such as restaurants and movie theaters. When I first looked for research on the topic, I didn't find much. There was a study published in 1981 that reported that people seem more distressed at the prospect of walking into a restaurant alone than walking into an empty room alone, staying home alone, or living alone.

Why the hesitation? The celebrated sociologist, Erving Goffman, offered one explanation: "To attend alone is to expose oneself as possibly not being able to muster up companionship."

Yeah, I know. You didn't need a sociologist to tell you that if you go out to dinner on your own, other people will think you are a loser.

I'm a social psychologist, though, and a numbers-loving one at that. No matter how strong my intuition may be, and how many others may seem to agree with me, I want to see the relevant research. What do other people really think when they see someone dining alone?

Because there were no relevant studies out there, I decided to do my own. My collaborators (Wendy Morris and Cathy Popp) and I took pictures of pairs of heterosexual couples dining together - one couple on each side of a table in a restaurant. Some of the couples were in their 20s or 30s, and others were a decade or two older.

Then we took each of the pictures and used some computer wizardry to make people disappear. Erase one of the men, and now a woman appears to be dining with a couple. Erase the other man, and she appears to be dining with another woman. Erase the other woman instead of the man, and she appears to be dining with a man. Erase all of the other people, and now she is dining alone. (We did the same thing with each of the diners - male and female, younger and older.)

We thought it was important to do the study this way so that each of the people we photographed (with their permission) would have the exact same posture and expression regardless of whether she or he appeared to be with other people or alone. If our intuitions were correct, the diners would be perceived (for example) as sadder when seated alone than with others - even though they actually had identical expressions each time.

We brought our pictures to a shopping mall, and asked adults to tell us why a designated person in the picture went out to dinner that evening. When the picture was of a person dining solo, we asked them to tell us why they thought the person went out to dinner alone.

Now we had hundreds of responses and comments made by the shoppers. What do you think they said? Focus especially on the solo diners. Can you guess what the shoppers said about the people who appeared to be dining on their own, compared to when the same people were pictured with others?

Do you think that particular categories of solo diners were judged more harshly than others? (For example, men vs women? Older vs younger?)

I'm stopping here. It's your turn. Offer your predictions, or share your own stories of dining solo. In my next post, I'll describe the results of the study.