The myth of “stranger danger” (and what to do about it)

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.

Seems like it should be easy enough to make a new friend in the comfort of our own city or town, right?

Many of us encounter hundreds of people over the course of our day, but how often do we actually say hello and make conversation? If you’re like me, probably not very often. Most people (myself included) can be shy about interacting with strangers, because we fear we might somehow be taken advantage of.

But do we really have reason to be so concerned?


“Hey, is that tea good?” Why not strike up a conversation with a stranger and see if you can make a new friend?
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

In 2010, at the University of Cologne in Germany, researchers Detlef Fetchenhauer and David Dunning created an economic game that required people to accurately judge the trustworthiness of strangers in order to win. They found that participants considered 52% of strangers trustworthy, even though a whopping 80% of strangers were actually deserving of their trust.

The big takeaway for me here was that the chances of encountering a trustworthy person are much greater than the chances of meeting someone who wishes you harm. If you’re super-cynical or risk-averse, you might say you’d rather practice caution than encounter someone with ill intentions. That’s fine, but if you don’t take the risk, you’ll miss out on meeting the 80% of strangers who are awesome.

If that’s not enough reason to reach out, consider this: the same study also confirmed that the biggest root of our cynicism is a lack of experience with strangers. What does that mean? Well, we established that approximately 80% of people are trustworthy, but if your first few encounters with strangers involved the 20% of untrustworthy individuals, then you’ve probably become skeptical about forging new friendships with mysterious people. On the other hand, if you’ve mostly encountered strangers from the trustworthy 80%, then every stranger is likely to seem more like a potential friend than threat.

Either way, remember that the odds are in your favor. If you’ve had some negative experiences with strangers, try reaching out and increasing your sample size—you’re due for an encounter with someone belonging to that 80%.

Turning strangers into friends is easier done than said. Read that again—it’s not a typo! This is thanks to the handy-dandy method I’ve drafted for creating a more stranger-friendly community wherever you call home. Caution: it sounds a little more like a dance craze than a fail-proof method for making friends, but bear with—it is tested and true.

My prescription for stranger-friendly cities is called the “UP, down, side to side method.” (No worries if you still prefer UP, down, side to side as a dance craze—feel free to bust the moves while walking down the street. No judgment here.) However, it has little to do with shaking-it-up or shimmying-it-down and everything to do with how you interact with your surroundings:

  • Enjoy the ride. Stop thinking about transit strictly in terms of getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Give yourself time to travel through your neighborhood, and as you walk, bike, bus, or drive, take in your surroundings. Look UP, down, and side to side as you journey, and consider how you might add value to your community. Strike up a conversation with the person next to you on the bus, or take note of a new business in the area and plan to stop in.
  • Take a walk. Luminary author Henry David Thoreau said that an early morning walk is like a prayer for the entire day. I ‘Thorealy’ agree!, but I also go a step further and assert that walking has great value at all hours. Walks allow us to look UP, down, and side to side as we commune with our surroundings, and solo sojourns especially provide us with an opportunity to think about our communities and observe the small things that make our neighborhoods special. Try a croissant at the local bakery and leave a tip. Make conversation with your waiter. Find out when the coffee shop has poetry readings and go listen to what some “strangers” in your ‘hood have to say.
  • Commit random acts of generosity. Investing your time and energy in another human being—even a stranger—almost always provides a positive return. When we look UP, down, and side to side, we find little ways to make life nicer for the people around us. Does the woman checking out ahead of you at the grocery store need a dime so she doesn’t have to break a $20? Give her one from your pocket. Does that elderly man look like he could use a little help crossing that icy street? Offer him your arm.
  • Invite someone to dinner. If you’ve ever lived alone, you understand how difficult it can be to cook for just one. Two can even be trying, as many recipes are written for families of four. So instead of dividing a recipe, why not invite the neighbors to dinner? Even (or especially) if you don’t know them well. If nothing else, it will save you the headache of division! And now—I don’t even need to say it, do I?—pause before you start cooking, look UP, down, side to side, and consider who else could be sitting at your table. Then call them. All of them.
  • Say hello without words. A welcome mat is a quick and easy way to welcome visitors and passersby even when you’re not home. If welcome mats could speak, they would say, “Hello friend! Welcome to this house. Please come inside and get cozy.” Even the humble welcome mat is aware of the importance of creating a warm community vibe. Look UP, down, side to side and figure out the best place to put that mat (probably in front of your door, but you do as you like).
  • Connect with the inspired. The Web makes it easy to contact almost anyone you admire, whether you’ve actually met them or not, so why not send a quick note to someone you think is doing good work? We can go digital with the UP, down, side to side method, too, if we use email to send kind words to deserving people. As an added perk, this kind deed helps you network with the people that inspire you the most.

My final plea comes even more directly from the heart: I ask you to be the type of person that shows others how kind strangers can be. We know that the most despairing communities and hardened individuals need kindness the most. So why not break the cycle and show them some goodness? Go ahead and get started with a little UP, down, and side to side action. It’s great for making friends out of strangers (and can also provide a nice little cardio workout).



Jennifer Prod is a Minneapolis-based blogger who believes in the power of creativity, positivity, and chocolate chip cookies. She’s written about happiness experiments and proliferating kindness on Idealist, and is always cooking up something on her blog, Apartment Wife.




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It’s magic! It’s a subliminal trick! It’s… priming?

How subtle environmental cues can affect whether we make progress on our intentions or not.

It’s a well-established fact that the words in our immediate environment can make us particularly cognizant of the same or similar words in our larger surroundings (imagine: you’re strolling down the street listening to Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” and suddenly the words “rain” and “umbrella” pop out as you pass a sign for outdoor gear on sale).

But in 1996, New York University researchers John Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows published an article that redefined just how influential words can be.

In the classic experiment, participants rearranged scrambled words to form sentences. In the control group, the sentences were random. In the experimental group, the sentences contained words relating to the elderly (“old, wise, wrinkle, bingo.”) After completing the task, the experimental group walked out of the testing room more slowly than those in the control set.

What?! The researchers had the same reaction. Could something so subtle really have such a significant effect? It did, and it sparked tons of research on just how much we might be unknowingly influenced by what’s around us.

This phenomenon is called priming: when something in the environment activates associations in the mind, influencing one’s perceptions, behaviors, and goals. Not to be confused with subliminal messaging, priming occurs due to direct, conscious interaction with something in your environment; there are no hidden words or images.

Subsequent studies found that it’s possible to prime using all kinds of stimuli (not just words) and for everything from behavior to goal-setting to judgement. In 2007, the New York Times cited an experiment that primed through touch.


Priming can help you put your best foot forward. (Photo via Toby Bradbury on Flickr’s Creative Commons.)

Simply holding a cup of hot or iced coffee influenced the way subjects would later judge a person in a story: those who had held hot coffee rated the character as warm, friendly and social; those who had held iced coffee rated the same person as colder, more selfish, and less sociable. Wow.

Priming and you

These studies have a significant “whoa!” factor that alone makes them worth sharing, but they also have implications for the world of social impact.

It would be great to start plastering your world with primes to make yourself kinder or more productive. But, there’s a catch to all this—you can’t prime yourself. As soon as you become aware of a prime, it no longer works. In fact, even if you’re just a tiny bit suspicious that you’re being manipulated, primes have no effect. C’est la vie.

Unfortunately, priming others won’t fly either. As long as you know who’s in your own “prime” and “control” groups, you’re likely to subconsciously alter your behavior, which affects the results. Primes need to be facilitated by a “blind” third party in order to work.

So… is this really real?

If you’re raising your eyebrows in doubt, you’re not alone—there is much controversy about the validity of priming studies. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a great review on both sides of the debate, but the social psychology jury is still out.

Part of the reason primes are so hard to create (and replicate) is that they have to be delivered in an environment that convincingly simulates “real life”—a tall order in a lab setting. In addition, newer studies have uncovered many layers to priming. In a variation on the elderly-prime study, for example, researchers found that subjects who had good feelings in general about older folks walked more slowly, while those who didn’t actually walked faster.

What you can do

Why did you just read this whole article, then? Because, priming—even if it’s ultimately judged more fluke than phenomenon—still offers some worthwhile takeaways. Here are three tips on how to create a prime-friendly environment:

1. Be more visual.

Even though primes don’t work when we’re aware of them, embedding positive images into our environments can only help. Not only is “happy decor” a spirit-lifting sight for us, it can also work as a positive prime for newcomers to our space.

Is your nonprofit looking to hire? By creating a work environment that visually promotes cooperation instead of competitiveness, you’re more likely to bring out the best in your candidates and employees. Think, for example, about putting out some flowers, or hanging up happy pictures of people your organization works with.

2. Watch your talk.

Think about the way you speak. Do you use more negatives or positives? Instead of asking, “What didn’t work? Why did it fail? What problems do we need to fix?” Try asking, “What could we improve? What did we learn? What solutions can we try?”

Positive language can inspire people whether or not they’re conscious of its use. It also has the effect of bringing you up in the process, in the same way that smiling—even if you’re unhappy—can brighten your mood.

3. Take stock of your environment.

It might be a bummer that we can’t prime like some research pros, but the flipside is that we don’t have to let ourselves be primed, either. The next time you notice yourself losing patience or feeling feisty, take a moment to truly notice your surroundings.Would you feel the same way if you were surrounded by sunshine, ice cream, and puppies?

By becoming more conscious of our environments, we can help ward off that chilled-coffee effect, and see the strangers around us for their potential warmth instead.

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You don’t have to be a hero to be a helper


Photo via Chiot’s Run on Flickr’s Creative Commons.

Back in April, we posted about professor Adam Grant’s endless capacity for helping and his research on the positive effects of generosity. We also listed some ways to get ahead by giving from Grant’s new book “Give and Take.”

One thing we haven’t talked about, though, is the underlying feeling that may keep many of us from boarding the give-and-gain train.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when standing in the shadows of seemingly superhuman do-gooders. The doubtful thoughts pile up: “How can I possibly be that helpful? What if I’m just not wired that way? How can I be a superhuman, when some days I struggle to be an adequate human?”

Grant believes helpfulness works like a muscle we can all develop. If he’s right, maybe it’s possible we can find ways to get a little stronger every day, without worrying about becoming Spartan-esque triathletes.

In her recent article on Grant, NY Times reporter Susan Dominus tried the theory out and put herself to the test:

I like to think I am a typically helpful person, but after reading Grant’s book, I found myself experimenting with being more proactive about it. I started ending emails by encouraging people to let me know if I could help them in one way or another. I put more effort into answering random entreaties from students trying to place articles. I encouraged contacts seeking work or connections to see me as a resource.

And I did notice that simply avoiding the mental lag of deciding whether to help or not was helpful. At a minimum, Grant’s example presents a bright-line rule: Unless the person on the other end is a proven taker, just do it–collaborate, offer up, grant the favor.

The first time I exchanged those emails, I usually felt good; after the second exchange on a given topic, I thought perhaps I had done my duty. But I noticed that every offer of help I initiated or granted engendered four or five e-mails, at the end of which I sometimes felt surly and behind on my work — and then guilty for feeling that way.

Dominus’ mini-test doesn’t mean it’s unsustainable to be an everyday giver. But it does remind us to find ways to give that don’t trap us in an ever-expanding favor spiral.

How, then, do we find a balance? Learning from Dominus and from Grant, here are a few ways we can start:

1. Make it automatic
How much time do we waste debating whether to respond to an email or to offer a helping hand? The more automatic we make our helpful responses, the less effort and energy they require. What if we turned small things (like picking up litter and throwing it out) into reflexes?

2. Make it reasonable
You don’t have to be a hero to be a helper. Do what you can; know your limits. Instead of responding to every email with the tag “How else can I help?” perhaps only offer when you know you can continue to help.

3. Make it sustainable
Some things–like turning off unused lights or giving away your lunch to someone hungry–don’t require follow up. Those decisions can be automatic. For bigger acts of giving, make sure you take care of your own needs before jumping to attend to others.

4. Make it sustainable…for others, too!
One of Grant’s main findings is that productivity, happiness, and creativity flourish when people see the results of their giving. If you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s generosity, don’t be shy to send them an email or give them a hug to say thank you. It only takes one voice to say, “Hey! It mattered to me!” to keep the giving going.

What do you think? Can giving feel paralyzing? Or burn you out? What are some small (or big) ways of helping that work for you?

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Why do people donate?


From Flickr user Alan/Falcon (Creative Commons)

Hope Consulting wanted to find out why people donate to good causes, and specifically what would encourage people to focus on supporting organizations that get results. What they found is published online in “Money for Good” (a pdf). According to the study, here’s how the universe of donors divides up:

  • 23% support organizations that have helped them or a loved one in the past
  • 18% give to well-known organizations, often through payroll deductions
  • 16% give to organizations they feel are making the greatest social impact
  • 16% choose organizations that match their religious beliefs
  • 14% look for small organizations where their gift makes a bigger difference
  • 13% give to organizations where they know people or where their friends also give

Only a third of the people they surveyed reported doing any research before giving, and nearly two-thirds of those donors do the research only to check up on an organization they have already decided to support (to “validate” the choice, in the researchers’ words).

Hope Neighbor, the leader of the consulting group, described herself in a profile on FastCompany with a bit of chagrin about her own habits. “I am mired in inertia,” she said, “and I definitely don’t choose the best organization. The way we act is different than the way we think we act. It’s true for me as for any of the people surveyed.”

My takeaways?

Donors: think about what you want to accomplish with your gifts and then spend some time exploring whether the recipients are aligned with those goals. (Here’s how.) It won’t take long to put you in the top ranks of intentional donors.

Organizations: your work isn’t going to appeal to every group of donors, so figure out which donor-profile fits your work and your mission. Once you’ve done that, make sure they are able to find the information they look for on your website, in your “support us” mailings, and in the presentations you make. If your messages don’t match what your core supporters are looking for, you’re wasting your time – and disappointing people who might find great satisfaction in supporting your work.

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