Why are so many people reluctant to go to the movies or dinner alone? The existence of this inhibition is widely known, but its underpinnings have been subjected to surprisingly little scientific scrutiny — until now.
Research by Rebecca Ratner, a marketing professor and assistant dean for academic affairs at the Smith School, sheds new light on the psychology of solo consumerism.
The work has implications for human happiness as well as for the bottom line of companies, which helps to explain explains why the Washington Post, New York magazine, CBS This Morning and many other media outlets reported on the study, which will appear in the Journal of Consumer Research.
One insight: If people actually push through their fears, and venture out alone, they'll find that they enjoy themselves quite a bit, possibly far more than they expect.
As people marry later, and with more dual-career couples juggling families, more and more people face the decision of going to a cultural event alone or missing out. "It's not necessarily that these are people who don't have a lot of friends," says Ratner, who co-wrote the article with Rebecca Hamilton, of Georgetown University. "It's that there's something they want to do, but they just don't happen to have an activity partner."
First, in a survey, Ratner and Hamilton established that people were reluctant to engage in fun activities solo but not utilitarian activities (like grocery shopping or a fitness walk). In cross-cultural surveys of people from the United States, India and China, they then showed that this reluctance stems partly from a strong fear that strangers who saw them out alone would think they had few friends.
In a real-life experiment, Ratner and Hamilton approached people who were walking on a university campus either alone or with a friend and asked if they'd be interested in exploring an art exhibition.
As expected, the people who were alone expressed less interest and predicted they'd have less fun viewing the art. But when they were prodded to actually stroll through the exhibition, the solo art viewers enjoyed themselves about as much as the accompanied ones. (How much they expected to enjoy the exhibition varied whether they perceived viewing art as "hedonic" — i.e., fun — or utilitarian.)
It will take some creativity to reach solo consumers, Ratner says. Perhaps solo visitors to restaurants could be encouraged to review the meals they eat (thereby signaling that they are especially important). Or theaters could encourage people to "collect" all the plays in a season (providing them with a quasi-utilitarian goal).
The simplest cues might help. "Restaurants usually have tables set for four or for two,” Ratner says. “What if they had tables set for one?"