Scientists say giving a stranger a small smile or even just making eye contact as you pass can have a huge impact on their feelings.
To find out how tiny gestures affected people, researchers at Purdue University conducted tests on hundreds of students and found even the smallest amount of eye contact made them feel connected to others.
“Ostracism is painful. It’s not a pleasant experience,” the Daily Mail quoted lead researcher Eric Wesselmann, a social psychologist at Purdue University in Indiana, as saying.
The team hope it could now help explain why people often feel lonely in large cities where people rarely make eye contact.
They say that the problem is worst in small towns.
“Lack of acknowledgment may be more painful in some locations (e.g., small towns) and may be normative and preferred in other locations (e.g., large cities),” the researchers wrote.
Researchers also believe that feelings of loneliness can have physical effects on people.
Previous research has linked loneliness to a weakened immune system and a hardening of the arteries, while other studies have found when a person is excluded, even in a computer game, they feel worse about themselves and can be plunged into a bad mood.
The latest research, presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Motivation, was designed to find exactly what triggers the ‘connected’ feelings.
“Some of my coauthors have found, for example, that people have reported that they felt bothered sometimes even when a stranger hasn’t acknowledged them,” said Wesselman.
The study was carried out with the cooperation of 239 people on campus at Purdue University.
A research assistant walked along a well-populated path, picked a subject, and either met that person’s eyes, met their eyes and smiled, or looked in the direction of the person’s eyes, but past them - ‘looking at them as if they were air,’ Wesselmann explained.
People who had received eye contact from the research assistant, with or without a smile, felt less disconnected than people who had been looked at as if they weren’t there.
“These are people that you don’t know, just walking by you, but them looking at you or giving you the air gaze—looking through you—seemed to have at least momentary effect,” Wesselmann said.
“What we find so interesting about this is that now we can further speak to the power of human social connection. It seems to be a very strong phenomenon,” Wesselmann stated.