Friday, 5 June 2015

Researchers say: Don't worry what other people think, going out on your own can be fun

In our part of the world, more people are living on their own than ever before. People also say they have fewer close friends. Yet it's still rare, especially at the weekend, to see someone eating alone in a busy restaurant, or rolling up solo to the cinema to watch the latest blockbuster.

According to a pair of US researchers, Rebecca Ratner and Rebecca Hamilton, this reluctance to partake in leisure activities on our own means many of us are missing out unnecessarily – not just on the fun experience itself (be that going to the movies or something else), but on the chance to meet new people while we're out.

The researchers asked hundreds of US, Indian and Chinese participants to say how interested they'd be in doing various activities alone or with friends, and how much they would expect to enjoy those activities. The results were clear across all cultures: people were less interested in, and thought they would enjoy pleasurable activities (like eating out) in public less, if they were alone than with friends. This wasn't true for chores like grocery shopping or exercise, in which case they thought it would be as much fun alone as with company.

The reason for thinking public leisure activities would be less enjoyable alone was at least partly explained by self-consciousness – the participants thought other people would assume they had fewer friends if they were seen eating out or going to the movies on their own.

But Ratner and Hamilton say people underestimate how much fun they'll have partaking in entertaining activities in public alone. In another part of the study, participants enjoyed a solo visit to an art gallery much more than they expected, even though the building's glass walls meant they could be seen on their lonesome from the street.

Next, the researchers looked at people's expectations about going to a coffee shop. Again, participants thought they'd enjoy this less on their own than with friends, unless they had work with them to do. And once more, a kind of embarrassment was at play, in that participants thought other people would assume they had fewer friends if they went to a cafe alone and had no work with them.

Finally, the researchers asked another set of participants about going to the cinema, alone or with friends, either on a busy Saturday night, or on Sunday when it's quieter. For participants contemplating a cinema visit on their own, Sunday was preferable, at least partly because they felt they would be seen by fewer people on the quieter night.

Ratner and Hamilton hope that "by identifying a widespread disinhibition to engage in public, hedonic activities alone as well as cues that attenuate this inhibition [i.e. when the activity is re-framed to involve work or to be functional in some way], we can encourage more consumers to go bowling – or whatever leisure activity is appealing but for which they lack an activity partner – alone."

The pair propose a number of creative suggestions for how businesses might encourage more lone customers, such as: communal tables for solo diners at restaurants and group seating in cinemas for lone film viewers, and by making activities "collectible", such as by offering incentives to sample a certain number of meals from a menu or plays at a theatre, thereby lending a functional aspect to fun experiences which might reduce the self-consciousness of doing them alone.

It's admirable to try to give people the confidence to go out on their own if that's what they want to do. And this study has succeeded in prompting newspaper headlines like "Why You Should Really Start Doing More Things Alone" (Washington Post). But sceptics will note that the current evidence is weak when it comes to actually showing that participating in leisure activities in public alone is more fun for people than they expect it to be.

Only one aspect of this study examined people's actual experience of completing an entertainment activity alone – and that was the five minute trip to an art gallery. This is surely quite a different prospect than, say, visiting a bustling restaurant or theatre by yourself, and it remains to be seen how accurate people are at forecasting their experience of those more challenging environments without any company.


Rebecca K Ratner, & Rebecca W Hamilton (2015). Inhibited from bowling alone Journal of Consumer Research. In Press.

--further reading--
Is it the darkness within? Some people would rather shock themselves with electricity than spend time with their own thoughts
Social flow - how doing it together beats doing it alone
We're happier when we chat to strangers, but our instinct is to ignore them

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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