Don't Talk to Strangers... or, Maybe You Should

As part of our series on the psychology of advice, this post was written by Sooth intern, Michelle Hasan who recently earned her Ph.D. in the Applied Social Psychology Lab at St. Louis University and now is a Senior Research Assistant in the Center for Public Health Systems Science at Washington University in St. Louis.

Imagine this: you’re sitting in the park on a cool summer night, contemplating life while on the swings. Someone takes a seat on the swing next to you. Can you envision yourself talking to this person about your indecision regarding what career path to take? Would you feel comfortable letting this person know you feel like a bad mother because you’re working all the time? Would you be okay asking this person for advice regarding how to spice up your sex life? If you’re like most people, the thought of spilling the details of your life to a complete stranger might sound weird and/or incredibly awkward. Who is this person and why would they care about my situation? Why would I want advice from someone who doesn’t even know me?

Such thoughts beg the question: who do you talk to when you need advice? Chances are that you share your situation with close friends, family members, or your significant other. After all, these people know you well, know your history, and likely have your best interest at heart. So why would you share your situation with a stranger and ask advice from someone who knows nothing about you? The very fact that this person plays a non-significant role in your life is what allows him/her to be objective. They have no vested interest in you or your situation and you can be sure that they have little, if anything, to gain from giving you advice and from what you decide to do (except maybe feeling like they’ve helped humankind!). People tend to value non-judgmental, objective advice, so who better than a stranger to give you a little guidance? Members of the Sooth community agree, asking for advice regarding highly personal topics, including:

  • What to do when a sibling wants to get back together with an unfaithful romantic partner
  • How to deal with a parent who suffers from hoarding issues
  • What to do when a friendship seems to have run its course
  • What to do when the frequency of sex decreases in a marital relationship

Research suggests that we communicate more effectively with strangers than with close others. When we communicate with a close other, we often feel that this person has insight into our situation and ourselves, therefore, we don’t feel the need to provide a thorough explanation (Savitsky, Keysar, Epley, Carter, & Swanson, 2011). We tend to take an egocentric position with close others, failing to consider the possibility that they do not have all of the information that we have. In contrast, when we communicate with a stranger, we automatically provide more information because we don’t have a “closeness bias” with this person. Thus, a stranger may understand us better than a close other, because we put forth more time and effort into ensuring that our stranger has all of the information that we have.

So, the next time you’re mulling something over, consider chatting up that stranger in the park. Or, stick with the Soothstream!