A new study finds that being ignored, even by a stranger, can make people feel disconnected.
Psychologists already know that humans have to feel connected to each other to be happy, but Eric D. Wesselmann, Ph.D., of Purdue University wanted to know just how small a cue could help someone feel connected, after receiving reports from people that they were “bothered sometimes even when a stranger hasn’t acknowledged them.”
The experiment took place on the campus of Purdue University. A research assistant walked along a crowded 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 said.
When the assistant had passed the person, he or she gave a thumbs-up behind the back to indicate that another experimenter should stop that person. The second experimenter then asked, “Within the last minute, how disconnected do you feel from others?”
People who had gotten 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 a momentary effect,” Wesselmann said.
Other research has found that even being ostracized by a group you want nothing to do with, like the Ku Klux Klan, can make people feel left out, so it’s not surprising that being pointedly ignored can have the same effect, he said.
“What we find so interesting about this is that now we can further speak to the power of human social connection,” Wesselmann says. “It seems to be a very strong phenomenon.”
The study was published in Psychological Science, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science.