Why You Should Go to the Movies (and Do Other Stuff) Alone

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Man Watching Movie in Empty Theater --- Image by ? moodboard/Corbis
Photo: moodboard/Corbis

Would you go to a movie alone? For some people, the question elicits a quick and easy nod — of course! Why not? For others, panic: The idea of sitting there, all alone, surrounded by people who aren’t alone is humiliating.

Everyone has different internal guidelines for solo outings, and these guidelines are often marked by a fair degree of irrationality. I’ve never been able to work up the nerve to see a movie alone, for example, and yet I’ve eaten plenty of meals in restaurants without a dining partner — despite the fact that it’s a much more visible activity than sitting in a dark theater. And while going to a concert alone makes perfect practical sense — none of my friends are really into Listener, after all — I just don’t have it in me. I’d feel awkward standing around during the interminable period between the last opener and the main act, having no one to talk to, surrounded by happily socializing concertgoers.

Or that’s how I think I’d feel, at least. An article in the August Journal of Consumer Research suggests that I — and all the other solo-outing-phobic folks out there — might be wrong. If we’d just actually fight through our fears and go to that movie or restaurant alone, we’d have a good time. We’re missing out on a potentially fun experience because of ill-grounded fears. (The article isn’t available online yet, though the issue’s table of contents can be found here.)

The paper, co-authored by Rebecca Ratner and Rebecca Hamilton of the University of Maryland and Georgetown business schools, respectively, reports on five experiments. Four of them involved surveys asking people which sorts of activities they preferred to do alone or in groups, and why, and the fifth involved a real-world attempt to nudge people out of their comfort zones.

The survey results, which held across not just Americans but Chinese and Indian respondents as well, largely lined up with common-sense intuitions about why some people avoid participating in certain activities alone — particularly so-called “hedonic” ones, which are simply about having fun, as opposed to “utilitarian” ones, which involve at least a veneer of productivity (doing work in a restaurant rather than simply sitting there and eating, for example). Across the surveys, the researchers write, they consistently found that “[c]onsumers worry that if they engage in [hedonic] activities alone, observers will infer that they could not find friends to accompany them.”

There were ways to make people feel more comfortable, though — “Cues that reduce the degree to which an activity is perceived as hedonic (e.g., reading a book while at a coffee shop) or reduce the anticipated number of observers increase interest in engaging in public activities alone.” This suggests that there’s nothing inherently uncomfortable about sitting alone in a coffee shop for some people; rather, what’s uncomfortable is the idea of other people seeing and judging — a fear that largely dissipates in the presence of a “reason” to be there, such as a book or magazine to read.

These fears feel a bit silly, of course, even for those of us who fall victim to them. Why would anyone actually care whether strangers in a coffee shop are judging them for not having enough friends? And why should the presence of a newspaper magically protect against these judgments? Ratner and Hamilton were curious what would happen when people engaged in these sorts of activities despite their misgivings. So in the paper’s one on-the-ground experiment, the researchers had interns recruit students walking through a campus center — some alone, some in groups — and ask them if they wanted to check out a nearby art gallery for five or ten minutes.

Participants were asked beforehand how much fun they expected to have, and to then rate the experience after. As expected, they expressed less interest in visiting the art gallery alone, and anticipated having a worse time, as compared to those who were in a group when they were approached. But reality didn’t match their predictions: As it turned out, there was no statistically significant difference in how solo people and group members rated the experience afterward — everyone had the same amount of fun. The experiment, write the researchers, “provides empirical support for a key premise of our investigation: consumers who forego hedonic activities alone are missing out on opportunities for rewarding experiences.”

This is a particularly pressing issue right now, the researchers argue, because Americans are spending more and more time alone — there’s a reason the paper is titled “Inhibited from Bowling Alone,” a reference to the famous Robert Putnam book about Americans’ declining membership in the sorts of groups and organizations that help people form meaningful social ties. “So many people are getting married later or are in dual-career families where one person is watching the kids at night,” Ratner told Science of Us. “You can’t always be going out with people.” So she and Hamilton don’t just see their research project as shedding light on a strange quirk of human nature; they think the stakes are a bit higher, that people are missing out on significant quantities of happiness — and businesses missing out on significant amounts of revenue — as a result of overblown fears.

A single, small study of students can’t definitively prove that people’s solo-outing fears are misguided, of course, and Ratner said she hopes to conduct more research in a similar vein, particularly studies involving activities that are more time-consuming than a quick pop-in to an art gallery. “This paper was almost like a sampler platter of things that could be interesting to look at on this general topic,” she said. She also wants to look at the other side of the equation: Do people who are out in a group actually judge those who are alone? “It’ll be interesting to understand more about how people actually evaluate a person, and what moderates those effects,” she said.

Ratner and Hamilton think that, whether or not concerns of being seen as a loner are well founded, solo-outing-phobia could contribute to a vicious cycle among those who really do lack sufficient companionship. After all, they write, attending events alone is a prime way to meet new people. Ratner said she’d recently experienced this firsthand, during a work trip to Turkey and Singapore that included some free time for travel. “I found myself talking to people more alone than I normally would traveling with other people, when you’re more insulated,” she said.

But the aura of travel certainly weakens the everyone-will-think-I’m-a-loser effect. Does Ratner practice what she preaches when she’s Stateside? “Oh my God, it’s so hard for me,” she said with a laugh. “It’s so hard. Wow. I did sign up for something that’s in a couple weeks — I’m going to go to a concert alone. It’s a weekday evening and it’s pretty near my house, so it feels sort of like baby steps, I think. The Saturday night alone, Friday night alone would feel harder for the very reason that people would be making stronger inferences — or I’d be thinking they’d be making stronger inferences.”

If even social psychologists studying these fears have trouble fighting through them, it suggests an uphill battle for the rest of us. But Ratner’s convinced it’s worth it, that we’re probably underestimating the likelihood of both having a good time and meeting other people. “Don’t put your life on hold until you have people to do things with,” she said.