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Why you should really start doing more things alone

Not as sad as it looks. (Winslow Townson/AP Photo)

On any given Friday night, bars, restaurants and movie theaters tend to fill up with people spending time with friends, lovers, and family. But when the weekend comes, those who find themselves on their own are likelier to be found on the couch, at home, doing something in private.

There's nothing particularly strange here. But maybe we're missing out when we automatically choose to stay in when we don't have social plans.

"People decide to not do things all the time just because they're alone," said Rebecca Ratner, a professor of marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, who has spent almost half a decade studying why people are so reluctant to have fun on their own and how it may lead to, well, less fun overall. "But the thing is, they would probably be happier going out and doing something."

Ratner has a new study titled 'Inhibited from Bowling Alone,' a nod to Robert Putnam's book about Americans' waning participation in group activities, that's set to publish in the Journal of Consumer Research in August. In it, she and co-writer Rebecca Hamilton, a professor of marketing at the McDonough School of Business, describe their findings: that people consistently underestimate how much they will enjoy seeing a show, going to a museum, visiting a theater, or eating at a restaurant alone. That miscalculation, she argues, is only becoming more problematic, because people are working more, marrying later, and, ultimately, finding themselves with smaller chunks of free time.

The conclusions stem from five separate experiments. In four of them, the researchers surveyed people about certain activities, probing whether they preferred to participate in them with others or alone. In the fifth, Ratner and Hamilton put the preferences to the test by gauging whether people actually enjoyed visiting an art gallery more when they were in the company of others, compared to when they were alone.

What they found is that people expected to enjoy the gallery less when they were alone, but they actually tended to have just as good a time whether they had company or not.

"When you compare an experience that is very similar with or without someone else, like visiting a gallery or going to a movie, you find little difference in enjoyment," said Hamilton. "Going to a restaurant might be a little different, because there's that element of conversation, but that doesn't preclude the reality that going to a restaurant alone is still enjoyable."

Indeed, the question isn't whether we're going to have more fun doing something with friends rather than not. It's about those times when we don't have someone to see a new movie with, or eat at a newly opened restaurant, and there's discomfort about going by ourselves, even though we'd probably have a fine time.

"The reality is that you're foregoing a lot of fun," said Ratner. "We all are."

Why? Ratner says it's mostly because we're overly self-conscious.

"The reason is we think we won't have fun because we're worried about what other people will think," said Ratner. "We end up staying at home instead of going out to do stuff because we're afraid others will think they're a loser."

But other people, as it turns out, actually aren't thinking about us quite as judgmentally or intensely as we tend to anticipate. Not nearly, in fact. There's a long line of research that shows how consistently and regularly we overestimate others' interest in our affairs. The phenomenon is so well known that there is even a name for it in psychology: the spotlight effect. A 2000 study conducted by Thomas Gilovich found that people regularly adjust their actions to account for the perspective of others, even though their actions effectively go unnoticed. Many other researchers have since confirmed the pattern of egocentric thinking that skews how we act.

"If we get people to see that it’s okay to do something for pleasure on their own that’s the way to get rid of the stigma," Hamilton said.

How exactly we might go about shedding the stigma is unclear. For one, businesses could be more accommodating of people doing solo activities.

"Something as simple as adding a second set of tableware instead of removing that second set could set a subtle but important precedent," Ratner said.

Another solution might involve tweaking how people perceive the activities themselves. Ratner and Hamilton found that people are much more likely to pursue an activity alone when it's a learning experience. For that reason, bringing reading material along to a cafe or restaurant tends to shed a new light on the experience. But doing that, too, is often a coy way of hiding your shame.

"It makes it look like they’re occupied and busy, not just that they have no friends" said Hamilton.

But the best way to get rid of the stigma of doing things in public alone is probably for people to just start doing it more.

"We need the norms to shift a little. We need for people to think it’s a gutsy cool thing to have fun on our own," said Ratner. "Someone needs to start the new trend."