I Ruined Two Birthday Parties and Learned the Limits of Psychology

A primer on how not to talk to strangers

photo of a string of balloons partially or fully deflated
Nick Ballon / Gallery Stock

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A good way to learn psychology is to ruin two birthday parties.

Take it from me: I’ve got a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, but I didn’t really understand my own field until I started showing up at strangers’ birthday parties because science told me to. And now that I’ve inadvertently wrecked multiple get-togethers, I finally know the true meaning of psychology.

It happened in Atlanta, just after the 2018 meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. The place was buzzing with a new idea: Talking to strangers, research showed, could be surprisingly delightful. A few years earlier, two researchers had persuaded a bunch of Chicago commuters to talk to one another during their train ride in exchange for a free banana; the participants reported having an unexpectedly wonderful time. Now several other teams were reporting similar results. A few of my friends had discovered that strangers tend to like each other a lot when they first meet, but underestimate how much the other person likes them. I was at the conference hawking my own, related findings: Conversations rarely end when people want them to, but people have a nice time anyway. (Two of my participants flirtatiously exchanged numbers after meeting each other in my study, so, if nothing else, I was running an extremely inefficient dating service.)

So when I ended up with an extra day in Atlanta, I thought, Why not listen to all these studies and go meet some strangers? And I knew just how to do it.

I’m an escape-room enthusiast––that is, I like to pay people about $35 to lock me in a converted office space with a bunch of friends and some themed puzzles. I have done this more than 140 times, turning what might otherwise be a silly hobby into the most annoying aspect of my personality. Many escape-room websites allow you to see how many people have already signed up for a certain time slot and, as if predicting my pro-stranger epiphany, they even allow you to join those preexisting groups without consent. I was so excited that I signed up for two nearly full rooms. Unforeseen pleasures, I thought, here I come!

I began to realize my mistake on the way to the first venue. I was running late, so the woman who ran the room called me to check in. “When are you arriving?” she asked, but something in her voice said “Why are you arriving?” I wondered, Was I doing something weird? When I got there, the answer was immediately, obviously, yes. The rest of the team was waiting, and they were clearly unhappy to see me, but they were being heroically polite about it. They were six 20- and 30-somethings, profoundly normal, not the kind of people who would get hopped up on psychology studies and go crash someone else’s escape room. In another life, we might have been friends. But we weren’t. They were friends; I was a stranger. I got the impression one of them was having a birthday, but I wasn’t sure, because it’s weird to tell strangers that it’s your birthday unless you’re at a restaurant and angling for a free cupcake. The suspected birthday boy looked saddest of all to see me.

“You must be Adam,” he said.

I figured I could win over my teammates by being really good at escape rooms. All I had to do was solve a big puzzle; we’d all cheer, and then we’d get to talking about our dreams of starting our own escape room (the theme would be “friendship”), and then maybe we’d go throw a Frisbee around and we’d exchange numbers and become lifelong pals, just like the people in the psychology studies did.

“Maybe this does something,” I said, holding up a Ping-Pong ball.

“What does it do?” one of the guys asked eagerly.

“I don’t know,” I said.

I had forgotten that a key part of doing escape rooms is communication, and talking to people is hard when they all know one another and you don’t know them, and especially when you appear to be ruining their birthday party. In fact, no one really talked to me for the rest of the room, except when I said things like “There’s something about this clock” and they said “Uh-huh.” They did let me open one of the combination locks, even though I wasn’t the one who figured out the code, which was generous of them.

As soon as we got out, I skedaddled. I wanted to leave these poor strangers as soon as possible. But I also had a second room to get to––I had already paid for it, and as every social scientist knows, you’re supposed to honor sunk costs.

This one was unmistakably a birthday; the room was a prelude to a party. The gang of friends was slightly older this time, all of them new-ish parents who had left the kids with a babysitter for a little adult fun. I forget the birthday gal’s name, but I do remember that her daughter’s name was pronounced “Sir-see,” like the terrifying character from Game of Thrones who incestuously had three children with her twin brother and was later crushed by rocks.

Worst of all, the room was Prohibition-themed, and all the other guests were wearing old-timey clothes. The ladies wore flapper dresses and fascinators; the men wore suspenders and spats. I wore jeans and a plaid button-down, which was now thoroughly soaked with the kind of sweat you only produce when you know you’re doing wrong.

Once again, I embarrassed myself by solving virtually no puzzles. I walked around with fake thoughtfulness, picking things up and putting them down. “There’s probably a second room; there’s usually a second room,” I once offered, helpfully, to no response. My big win was finding a key and then, every five minutes or so, saying, “I have a key if anyone needs a key,” and when someone finally needed a key, I went, “The key!” and unlocked their padlock for them.

When we got out, the group assembled for a photo. “Let’s do one with Adam and one without,” someone offered, weakly.

“That’s okay, gotta go!” I said, already fleeing.

Where were my unforeseen pleasures? Where was my surprisingly delightful time? Where was my flirtatiously exchanged phone number? Why had science lied to me?

Psychologists sometimes act like we’re compiling a how-to book for life. Year by year, we scratch out the old wives’ tales, folk theories, and cognitive biases, and then replace them with evidence-based guidance for making better, happier decisions.

We are not compiling a how-to book for life. Many of our studies fail to replicate, but even if every paper were 100 percent true, you could not staple them together into an instruction manual, for two reasons.

First, people are just too diverse. Almost nothing we discover is going to be true for every single human. In my own research, for example, some strangers became fast friends, but others spent two painful minutes asking questions like “So, uh, do you have any cousins?” and then left as soon as they could. We also study just a small slice of the Earth’s population, and there’s no guarantee that what we discover about undergrads doing studies for extra credit, or Americans taking online surveys for pennies, or Chicago commuters striking up conversations for fruit, will generalize to the rest of humanity.

Second, social situations vary too much. People did have a surprisingly nice time talking on a train in Chicago, but the same might not be true at a grocery store in Tallahassee, or in a New York elevator. The outcome might depend on whom you’re talking with, or what you’re talking about, or whether you’ll end up getting a banana.

Studying all these different contexts would be like emptying the ocean one teaspoon at a time. At best, a few folks will run some additional studies fleshing out the phenomenon, and then everyone will move on. We will never have a truly comprehensive account of when, and for whom, talking to strangers is a good idea.

So what’s the point of all this research? Can you ever apply it to your daily life, or is it better to ignore it, like a sweaty interloper in an escape room?

My advice is to think of psychology research less as a set of instructions and more as a means of refining your intuitions. If you expect talking to strangers to be a terrible ordeal, then you should wonder why study participants find it surprisingly enjoyable. It’s possible those studies are wrong. But if they’re not, what gives? Maybe you’re just part of a minority of misanthropes. Maybe the strangers you meet aren’t like the strangers on that commuter line near Chicago. Maybe you treat every surprisingly delightful stranger as an exception and assume the next stranger will be bad.

Each new finding in psychology presents an opportunity to pick out the most useful bits, learn from them, and ignore the rest. We’re already used to doing this in other contexts. When we hear a narrative, we understand that some details matter (“Brutus betrayed Caesar”), and some don’t (“Brutus wore a toga”). We know that a story shows us what can happen (“Sometimes friends turn on you”), not what always happens (“Every friend will turn on you”). And we intuit that a story’s message should be taken seriously (“Make sure you maintain your friends’ loyalty”) and not literally (“Make sure to wear a stab-proof vest”). Nobody has to tell us how to reason in this way.

Applying our story sense to psychology works because psychology is stories. Each study reports what a certain group of people did in a certain time and place––that is, it sets a scene, fills it with characters, and puts them in motion. The stories can be simple (“People who said they felt depressed also said they had trouble sleeping”), or they can be complicated (“We offered people a banana to go talk to strangers on a train, and they reported having a better time than they expected”). We use statistics to show that our stories are credible, but a little bit of math doesn’t change what’s underneath.

I ended up ruining two perfectly good birthday parties because I didn’t use my story sense. The science at the conference in Atlanta suggested that meeting strangers can be unexpectedly wonderful, but I didn’t consider the context: Obviously, striking up a conversation with a fellow commuter is nothing like locking yourself in a room full of people who are trying to celebrate their friend’s birthday and enjoy a series of speakeasy-themed puzzles. I acted like the studies showed that conversations with strangers always go better than expected, rather than showing that they sometimes do. And I took the research literally (go meet new people right now!) rather than seriously (be more open to meeting new people, but, you know, don’t be stupid about it!).

A story sense can sometimes be misleading, though, as psychologists have shown in many different ways. For instance, people tend to assume that easily imagined events (such as dying in a terrorist attack) are more common than events that are hard to picture (such as dying from falling out of bed). Learning how to apply the findings of psychology research is not like learning long division or computer programming; there isn’t a handbook, and nobody can tell you when you’re doing it wrong. You pick it up slowly, painfully, through trial and error, when you see the crestfallen faces of the people whose birthdays you’ve ruined. No amount of expertise can speed up that process, which is why psychologists can study happiness and marriage all we want and yet some of us still end up depressed and divorced.

But here’s one finding you should take literally: Don’t sign up to do escape rooms with strangers. And if you’re one of the unfortunate people in those escape rooms I crashed: I’m so sorry, and please give my best to Cersei.