Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being

Bringing More Purpose to Your Commute

By Alex Shaw, Brittany Christian


Social connection is an essential part of having a purposeful and meaningful life. Some of our most cherished moments come from interacting with others; sharing with them our fears, hopes and dreams. Despite our desire for social connection, modern life offers a paradox whereby we can feel most isolated in situations where we are surrounded by others. Interactions with strangers who are sitting next to us in overcrowded trains, planes, and waiting rooms appear to be more effort than they are worth, knowing that the potential benefits of a fleeting connection couldn’t outweigh the initial discomfort it would bring.  However, recent research brings this “knowledge” into question by suggesting that people might be mistaken about how much they would enjoy talking with strangers.

Image ©: See-ming Lee 2013

Prof. Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business set out to explore whether or not intentionally interacting with strangers on public transportation could make people feel happier about their commute (Pdf). To investigate this question the experimenters randomly assigned commuters (who they had approached on trains and buses) to a control or a “connected” condition. In the control condition, participants were instructed to go about their daily commute as normal (as you might expect, many of them spent their time in solitude). In the connected condition, participants were encouraged to interact with a new person and to try to make a connection. After receiving these instructions, participants were given a survey that they were asked to mail back to the researchers after their commute. This survey assessed how positive and productive the participants felt their commute was. As the authors hypothesized, those in the connected condition (who talked to strangers) reported having a more positive experience on their commute than participants who did what they would normally do. Interestingly, the researchers also asked a different group of participants to predict which condition would make them feel more positive and productive. Participants predicted the exact opposite pattern of results, thinking that people would be less happy if they talked to strangers and that they would feel their commute was less productive.

If chatting to strangers makes for a more pleasant and productive commute, then what fuels our mispredictions and keeps us from engaging with those around us more frequently? The authors suspected that one barrier to social interaction may be that people are afraid of a negative encounter (e.g. being rejected by others). To test this hypothesis they had a different group of commuters report how much they would enjoy talking to others and also how much these others would enjoy talking to them. Further, they had participants report how likely they thought others would be to rebuff their efforts to start a conversation. Not only did participants think their efforts to engage another individual were likely to be dismissed (they thought about 50% of participants would refuse to talk to them), but they also predicted they would enjoy talking to others more than those others would enjoy talking to them. These results demonstrate that people mistakenly think others are unwilling to talk to them (this is a “mistake” because the authors found that participants who initiated conversations with others were very unlikely to be rejected) or that they won’t enjoy the conversation. Thus, people miss out on the benefits of talking to others because they assume that others will not enjoy talking to them and are afraid of rejection that is, in fact, very unlikely to occur.

These studies add to a growing body of literature that speaks to the importance of simple social interactions in improving our mood (some of which we’ve covered here previously). All too often we spend our time doing things that actually get in the way of our overall purpose, such as when we fail to prioritize the goals that are most important to us.  Smartphones that allow us to crush candy or chuck angry birds to pass the time make it easier than ever for us to isolate ourselves from others. However, as fun as engrossing as these activities can be, they may be cheating us out of a simple pleasure that could bring purpose to our day and bring a smile to other people as well. So if you are currently reading this to pass the time as you are surrounded by others, put your smart phone down for a minute and try talking to a random stranger right now. As this research shows, you’ll probably enjoy it more than you think! 



Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Brittany Christian is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being

Previous Post:
In Difficult Times, You Are as Empathic as You Believe You Can Be
Next Post:
How to make the first step less daunting: The importance of seeing the future as now


You need an account to comment! Connect to a social account!.

Design By: