Human beings are extraordinarily sensitive creatures. A perceived slight can linger with us for hours, even days, while a genuine hurt caused by a stranger, friend or loved one may live on in our hearts and minds for much longer.
One recent study (via The Atlantic) reveals just how hyper-aware we are of how we’re treated by our fellow human beings, strangers in particular. More importantly perhaps, the study by psychology researchers at Purdue University suggests one simple way human beings can make one another feel better about their status in the world.
The trick: make eye contact and smile! It’ll brighten someone’s day. Conversely, if you want to make someone feel badly, avoid looking at them. Behave as if they’re invisible and you’ll make someone feel crummy, you creep.
The study, which appeared in the academic journal Psychological Science, builds on a previous paper that found people intentionally withholding eye contact as a form of social ostracism, as well as anecdotal evidence to suggest that avoiding eye contact makes people feel excluded.
The researchers wanted to test that theory. To do so, they cooked up a straightforward experiment. A research assistant was charged with walking past participants on a college campus. Sometimes the assistant made eye contact with the participant and smiled, while other times the assistant didn’t make eye contact and simply walked by without acknowledging the participant at all. The participants were then immediately collared by another assistant and asked how “disconnected” they felt from others.
In the end, those who were given a smile and eye contact reported felling less disconnected than those who were bypassed with neither a smile nor eye contact. The study suggests that even the most minor social interaction (even being ignored is a form of interaction) affects an individual’s feeling of value and connection in the world.