Fear of Flying Solo? Don’t Panic, There Are Benefits to Venturing Out Alone

This is part of our “Ask a Behavioral Scientist” series, where we give readers the opportunity to pose a question to leading behavioral scientists. Have a question? Ask it here.

Q: I have a close friend, Chris, who seems to possess some kind of superpower. He's able to go out in social situations completely alone. For me, just imagining going to a show or concert by myself is hive inducing—like middle school lunch all over again—even though I consider myself pretty social. All I can think about is that if I try to talk to someone, they'll see me as some kind of weirdo with no friends. But I envy Chris. When I only spend time with the people I already know, it's hard for me to meet new people and discover different ideas. And at the same time, when I meet someone out who is alone, I don't see them as a weird. Help! 

Do people see those flying solo as oddballs to be avoided? Do you have any advice for those of us eager, but nervous, to venture out alone?

You are not alone in your reluctance to do things alone! It is very common for people to worry that if they were to do leisure activities on their own, other people would think they don’t have friends. These concerns lead people to forego activities, such as going to movies or concerts, that could in fact be quite enjoyable. 

In one study, we sent people into an art gallery either alone or with a companion and found that before the experience, people expected to enjoy it less when we sent them in alone than with a friend. But when we followed up with these same people as they exited the gallery, we found they had enjoyed it as much alone as when they were accompanied. We all sometimes lack an activity partner, and fears about going out alone can lead you to miss out on experiences you would enjoy.

How do people actually perceive someone like your friend Chris, who does these kinds of activities alone? My colleague Yuechen Wu and I have found that there are ways in which the person who does an activity solo is perceived more positively than someone who does the same activity with a companion. In a working paper, we found that it is clearer to observers that someone who does an activity alone has intrinsic interest in the activity, whereas it isn’t clear whether an accompanied person is doing the activity just to spend time with friends.

We have found that there are ways in which the person who does an activity solo is perceived more positively than someone who does the same activity with a companion.

As a result, for example, we find that people think someone who volunteers in a soup kitchen alone is more altruistic than someone who volunteers at the soup kitchen with friends. In another study, we showed people a social media post about “a relaxing afternoon making chocolate truffles,” followed by the words “by myself” or “with friends,” along with an appealing photo of the chocolates. People thought the poster was more interested in and knowledgeable about truffle making when the person had done the activity solo rather than with friends.

You mentioned being worried that other people would not want to talk with you if you were out alone. In a second working paper, Wu and I asked participants in one study how likely they would be to initiate conversation with someone who was out alone or with a friend. They reported being more likely to initiate a conversation with someone who is alone, because they believed the person would be more open to talking with them. Talking with new people can expose you to new perspectives, as you noted, and research shows that talking with strangers can be even more enjoyable than talking to someone you already know well.  

Kudos to your friend Chris for venturing out into the world without a companion at his side. If you can push yourself to do the same, you may well enjoy it more than you expect, make positive impressions on others, and have interesting conversations with people you wouldn’t have met if you had stayed home. Who knows, you might even make some new friends who share your interests along the way!