You don’t need a psychological study to know that meeting people— on first dates, at new jobs, during the inescapable social obligations called birthday parties—can be awkward.
But a helpful new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin confirms something that reality dating shows have long known: if you want people to bond, make them do out of the ordinary things together, like bungy jumping or going to a sweat lodge.
We humans are just too self conscious to bond quickly if we’re engaged in routine, day-to-day activities, lead study author Kate. E Min, a visiting scholar in marketing at Cornell University, and her colleagues suggest. When people are unacquainted, they don’t know how hanging with a new person is going to turn out, so they might act uncomfortable or awkward.
But extraordinary experiences—anything that gets you out of your day-to-day rhythms—can also get you out of your own head, so to speak. “They allow new partners to focus their attention on the unusuality of the experience, rather than the awkwardness of their first interaction,” Min tells Thrive Global. But, her research indicates, the same can’t be said for people who already know each other, since there are fewer social wrinkles to be smoothed over.
Min and her collaborators sussed this out in five experiments. Some relied on recall, asking hundreds of respondents to remember ordinary and extraordinary experiences they’d had with unfamiliar friends. As expected, extraordinary experiences—those beyond everyday life—were linked to feelings of closeness. Others experiments required participants to imagine banal or slightly strange scenarios, like buying either white (ordinary) or black (extraordinary) toilet paper with a new acquaintance. After describing such a scene to themselves, the black toilet paper group expected to feel greater closeness with their new friend.
The most intriguing experiment actually paired up unfamiliar participants (all college students) and put them into a novel situation in real life. The pairs were placed on a couch in front of a table with a two cups of water and a single neapolitan wafer. Their task: to rate the snack on texture, sweetness, mouthfeel, dissolvability and overall quality. In the extraordinary experience condition, they approached things in an arguably wacky way (“To get an idea of how sweet the wafer is, put a small piece of wafer under your nose and smell it”) while the ordinary condition was pretty mundane (“To get an idea of how sweet the wafer is, put a small piece … in your mouth and let it melt.”) They then reported how close they felt to the other person. Team zany felt closer.
More research will need to be done to further parse out what kinds of experiences promote bonding, and whether there’s a difference between the kinds of activities that bring colleagues together versus potential romantic partners. Still, the general principle is clear: If you want to get comfortable with someone, get out of your comfort zone together.