Opinion, research: The fear of being alone in public is widely shared but often unwarranted

Bella DePaulo

Photo by Verena Yunita Yapi on Unsplash

When I taught the graduate course, “Singles in Society,” years ago, one of the assignments was for students to go out for a meal by themselves. The students were totally into it. They upped the ante: It had to be dinner, not lunch. And then they upped it again: They could not bring anything to distract them during dinner, such as something to read or to look at. They had to just dine on their own.

One undergraduate persuaded me to let her into this graduate class, and when she told her friends about the assignment, they were horrified. They could not imagine going out to dinner by themselves.

The graduate students, and the aghast friends of the undergraduates, were all onto something. Their intuitions have been supported by a series of studies by professors Rebecca K. Ratner and Rebecca W. Hamilton published in the Journal of Consumer Research. Concerns about being alone in public, in certain situations, are widely shared. Even more interesting, those concerns are often unwarranted.

Going out alone, just for fun? No, thank you

People are reluctant to do things, just for fun, in public by themselves. Asked about the possibility of going out to dinner or going to a movie in a theater, they express more interest in the experience, and expect to enjoy it more, if they are going to go with friends than if they are going to be alone.

Their reluctance can be explained, at least in part, by how they think they will be viewed by other people. If they are out in restaurants or movie theaters by themselves, they think others will look at them and assume they don’t have many friends. That’s probably why my undergraduates' friends were horrified at the thought of going out to dinner alone—they thought other people would see them as losers.

The researchers found that the reluctance to go to a movie theater alone (compared to going with friends) and the expectation of being judged harshly for doing so, was not just true of people in the U.S. People in India and China shared the same psychology of being alone in public.

Out alone for a purpose (not just for fun)? That sounds better

My students who insisted on taking the assignment to the next level, by prohibiting themselves from bringing reading materials or any other semblance of work, were correct in their intuitions that going out in public just to enjoy yourself would be more difficult. For example, in one of the studies, participants imagined being in a coffee shop just having a drink, or they imagined doing some work while they were there. And, as usual, they imagined doing those things either on their own or with friends.

If they were going to be alone in the coffee shop, they preferred to be working. They thought they would enjoy the experience more when they were working than when they were just sipping their drink. They also thought others would judge them more harshly (as a person who has few friends) when they were just sipping than when they were sipping and working.

The psychology flipped when they imagined being at the coffee shop with friends. They thought they’d enjoy it more if they were all just hanging out than if they were working. They expected to be viewed more positively by others, too, if they were just hanging out than if they were working.

The concern with what others might be thinking seemed to be paramount. In another one of the studies, participants were asked to imagine that they were going out to a movie either by themselves or with friends. Did they prefer to see the movie on a Saturday night or a Sunday? At a time when the theater was full or when it was not so full?

Participants would prefer to go to the theater on a Sunday night, and to a less crowded theater, if they were going to be on their own. They preferred Saturday night, and a full theater, if they were with friends. The people who were going to the movie alone did not want to be seen, and they figured there was a better chance of escaping the notice of other people on a Sunday night when the theater was less crowded.

One of the interesting things about these studies is that they show that people are not always reluctant to be alone in public. In the coffee shop study, for example, when people had the cover of doing work, they were not so hesitant to be there on their own. Another study showed that when people were out in public for some practical reason, such as getting groceries or getting some exercise, they actually preferred being on their own than with friends.

Home alone watching movies or playing video games? That’s just fine

People who are Single at Heart savor their time alone; they don’t dread it. The research on the psychology of being alone found that even for people more generally (not just those who are Single at Heart), there are experiences they look forward to enjoying by themselves. For example, people are generally more interested in watching movies at home, or playing video games on their computers, by themselves than with their friends. They think they’d enjoy those experiences more that way.

But wait—how do people actually feel when alone in public?

In the key study, participants were recruited from the student union to visit the university art gallery. Students who were by themselves at the student union went to the gallery by themselves and students who were with a friend went to the gallery with their friend. (That’s not ideal, methodologically; random assignment would have been better.) The art gallery had glass walls, so other people could easily see the students as they looked at the exhibit.

Before they left the student union for the art gallery, the participants were asked to predict how they would feel. As in the other studies, the students who were headed to the gallery on their own thought that they would enjoy it less than the students who were going there with a friend. They also expressed less interest in attending similar exhibits. Also consistent with the other studies in which participants only imagined what their experience would be like, the people who were going to the gallery alone, more so than those going with a friend, thought that other people would judge them harshly.

After the participants spent time in the art gallery, they were asked the same questions again. Now, there were hardly any differences. The students who spent time at the art gallery on their own enjoyed it every bit as much as the students who went there with a friend. They were equally interested in seeing similar exhibits in the future. And the difference between the students who were alone and those who were with a friend, in their guesses about how other people judged them, was smaller than it was before.

The moral of this research is that we probably worry too much about doing things alone. We think we won’t enjoy the experience, but we may well enjoy it just as much as we would with friends.

That concern that we have about other people judging us harshly if they see us alone doing fun things in public? That’s probably unwarranted. My colleagues and I conducted an elaborate study of how people in restaurants are judged by others, depending on whether they are alone or with other people. The pictures we took of people alone or with others (for example, as a couple) elicited all sorts of warmhearted as well as pejorative comments. The bottom line, though, was clear. Overall, people dining alone were judged no more negatively than people dining with others.

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Expert on the profound rewards of single life. Author of “Singled Out.” Popular TEDx speaker. Harvard PhD.

Summerland, CA

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