Here’s an easy choice: would you rather spend 4 minutes chatting to a good friend or to a complete stranger?
It’s safe to say most of us would choose our friend. When you chat to someone you know well it’s comfortable, relaxed and familiar—with a friend we know what we’re getting. With a stranger, though, anything could happen.
The problem with strangers is that we have to make more of an effort: psychologists call it ‘impression management’. With friends we can ‘be ourselves’, which means letting it all hang out; but with strangers we control our behaviour more tightly and our impression management goes into overdrive.
It’s this effort and stress of controlling ourselves with strangers that puts us off. But according to recent research there are hidden benefits to this effort and a lesson for all of us about how we (should) treat those we know well.
Get your swagger on
In their research Dunn et al. (2007) had participants in long-term relationships predict how pleasurable it would be to interact with:
- Their partner.
- An opposite sex stranger.
They then had a quick chat and rated how good they felt afterwards. What they found was that people enjoyed talking to their romantic partner less than they predicted. On the other hand they had more fun talking to a stranger than they had predicted.
So what’s going on here? How can people be having more fun than they imagine talking to complete strangers and less with the person they are in a long-term relationship with?
What the researchers found was that it comes down to whether or not you’re making an effort. Sometimes when we talk to our friends and partners we don’t make much of an effort to entertain them, show off or to present ourselves in the best light. But we do tend to make more of an effort with strangers.
In a follow-up study the researchers told participants to make an effort with their partners and then their enjoyment of the social interaction improved in line with their predictions. This suggests we can all have more fun with our partners and friends if we make an effort.
There’s a fascinating point that comes out of this research. When we predict how fun talking to a stranger will be, we fail to factor in the extra effort we make. But when we think about our partners we fail to factor in how lazy we tend to be.
There are two morals to this story: the sad but unsurprising fact that we take our partners and friends for granted and the less intuitive idea that strangers are more fun than we imagine because showing off makes us feel good.