Last month I went to a baroque music concert by myself. I’m not dating or married to anyone, and trying to find someone to go with me seemed too much trouble. The Grand Rapids Symphony did a marvelous job, as did the soloist, soprano Kathryn Meuller. I was particularly struck by Rebel’s “Chaos,” which is unlike any piece of Baroque music I had ever heard. I had a good time…except.
Except I was a little uneasy going by myself. There were lots of couples there, and some groups, but no one else that I saw sitting alone. I was violating the informal norm that concerts or shows are attended with others. What would those at the concert think of this guy sitting by himself? I told myself that others’ reactions didn’t matter, but, as social psychologists have discovered, norm violations do evoke anxiety in nearly all of us.
I’m certainly not the only one facing the question of whether to go to public events by myself. After all, lots of us live alone. Currently, 27 percent of U.S. households consist of just one person, compared to 17 percent in 1970. That makes for 32 million one-member households. Worldwide, the region with the highest rate one-person households is Western Europe with 31 percent; the lowest rate is in Asia, with just under 9 percent (Statistics from CBS News). There are certainly a lot of us who would have to look outside our home for someone with whom to go places!
The growth in the number of single-person households is to a large extent fueled by young adults marrying later than used to be the case. However, the age group with the highest percent of people who live alone is not young adults but the elderly (see the accompanying chart from the U.S. Census Bureau for a comparison between age groups). In 2012, about 28% (11.8 million) of all noninstitutionalized older persons lived alone (8.4 million women, 3.5 million men). They represented 36% of older women and 19% of older men. The proportion of those living alone increases with advanced age. Among women aged 75 and over, for example, almost half (46%) lived alone. (These statistics are taken from the Administration on Aging.)
If more and more of us will be living alone as we age, wouldn’t it be good to become comfortable going to concerts (and movies, plays, sporting events, and restaurants) by ourselves? A study by marketing professors Rebecca Ratner and Rebecca Hamilton that will be published later this year in the Journal of Consumer Research looked at the reluctance to do such things alone. (The study was discussed in The Atlantic.) The researchers posited that people hesitated to do things by themselves both because they thought they wouldn’t enjoy themselves as much as if they were with someone else and because they thought others would judge them negatively.
In one experiment, the researchers asked participants questions about doing activities either alone or with friends. The activities were either hedonic (i.e. usually engaged in for enjoyment) or utilitarian (usually engaged in to accomplish some goal other than enjoyment–e.g. going to the grocery store). The hedonic activities were further divided into those usually done in public (e.g. going to a restaurant for dinner) or usually done in private (e.g. playing a video game on one’s computer). Participants thought they would enjoy the hedonic-public activities more when done with others than when done alone. They also thought that, if they did these activities alone, others would infer they had fewer friends than if they did them with friends. Neither of these patterns of responding held when participants thought about private hedonic activities (e.g. a video game at home) or public utilitarian activities (e.g. a trip to the grocery store). In neither case did participants expect that, if they did the activity alone, they would enjoy the activity less or be judged as having fewer friends.
In a follow-up experiment, the researchers stopped 86 people walking through a college’s student union either alone or in a group. The recruited people were asked how much they thought they would enjoy a walk through a nearby art gallery, and then went through the gallery either alone or with the group they were with in the student union. Those contemplating going through the gallery alone predicted lower levels of enjoyment, but ended up enjoying the experience about as much as those who went with others. Thus, the expectation that we won’t enjoy doing things in a public place by ourselves may not be accurate.
So, if we were to get over our concerns about being judged negatively by others and started going to more “hedonic public” events by ourselves, we probably would enjoy ourselves more than we expect. Plus, we would be contributing to societal change. “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,” lead researcher Ratner told Roberto A. Ferdman of the Washington Post. “Someone needs to start the new trend.”
Why don’t we unattached older adults be the first ones to go out and have fun on our own? We’ll do both ourselves and society some good. Having gone to a concert once, I’m ready to do more things alone. If you come to Grand Rapids, you may encounter me sitting by myself at a restaurant or theater, looking around to see whether the rest of you are joining me!