Groundbreaking research finds that doing things on your own — as well as marketing to solo consumers — is a win-win for everyone.
By Melanie D.G. Kaplan
Photographs by Ann Cutting

 

In 2011, when Rebecca Hamilton, professor of marketing at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, first considered studying why people are reluctant to participate in pleasurable activities such as dining and movie-going by themselves, she was not alone.

She sat at a restaurant in Washington’s Penn Quarter with University of Maryland Professor Rebecca Ratner. The two were celebrating the recent publication of a paper they’d co-authored. Their conversation that night led to a research paper titled “Inhibited From Bowling Alone,” which was published in August by the Journal of Consumer Research and yielded an extraordinary amount of media coverage.
“I’m an only child,” says Hamilton, who is also the Robin and Michael G. Psaros Chair in Business Administration, “and [Ratner] was an only child until she was 14. Neither of us felt this strong reluctance to do dinner or movies alone. But we realized this wasn’t the case for everyone.”

In discussing what would become their groundbreaking study, the duo hypothesized the reason people are uncomfortable partaking in presumably fun activities on their own: They feel judged for not having friends. By the time their celebratory dinner ended, Hamilton says, “We felt like we had a good hunch. We were just surprised work on this topic hadn’t been published before.”

SOLO VERSUS STIGMA
Data suggests consumers are spending an increasing amount of time alone — from living by themselves and marrying later to having fewer close friends and joining fewer formal clubs and organizations. In fact, Hamilton and Ratner’s paper’s name plays on Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, about how we have become disconnected from friends, family, and neighbors.

Naturally, the authors say, certain pleasurable activities may be more enjoyable with the shared experience that comes with companionship. But they propose another reason consumers resist the solo route: They worry about negative evaluation by others and the perception that a person alone is a lonely person. Consequently, they may close themselves off to the joys of being out in the world solo, which can, of course, lead to delight and unexpected interactions with others. (Moreover, they say, others don’t care about your aloneness nearly as much as you do.)

I’m an only child, and [Ratner] was an only child until she was 14. Neither of us felt this strong reluctance to do dinner or movies alone. But we realized this wasn’t the case for everyone.”
—Rebecca Hamilton, Professor of Marketing and Robin and Michael G. Psaros Chair in Business Administration

In the paper, the authors asked whether consumers inhibit themselves from engaging in certain kinds of activities alone and, if so, why? Today’s culture in the United States highlights individual freedom and autonomy. Take, for example, campaigns such as the U.S. Army’s “Army of One” or Nike’s “Find Your Greatness.” Against this backdrop, it is somewhat surprising that consumers feel uncomfortable engaging in activities by themselves. Yet the authors found that people consistently underestimate how much they’ll enjoy activities in public by themselves.

“We did a few studies, and a huge majority of par­ticipants responded exactly as we expected,” Hamilton says of their 2013 and 2014 experiments, in which the researchers measured people’s desire to do something alone and asked how they thought others would react. “We were a little surprised at how strongly the results came out across cultures, ages, and personality types.”

One thing the studies showed is that it’s the public nature of an activity rather than the activity itself that affects the decision to do it alone. For instance, people were much more likely to say they would watch a movie by themselves at home than in a theater. The research found that when people do go to a movie alone, they’re more likely to select less popular times, like a Sunday, whereas if they went with a friend, they’d opt for a popular time like Saturday night.

The researchers differentiated between activities done purely for pleasure and utilitarian activities, which have a purpose beyond enjoyment. Findings showed that if people had to do something — pick up dry cleaning, catch up on email at a coffee shop, or even if they think they’re going to learn something from a museum exhibit — it seemed acceptable to be alone. One study was conducted on the University of Maryland campus, where some people went to an art gallery alone and others went with another person. They predicted they’d have a less favorable experience alone, but ended up enjoying it just as much as if they were with another person.

“It’s hard to predict how you’ll actually feel before you’re engaged in the experience,” says Hamilton, who has studied how context shapes the way consumers make decisions (i.e., people overestimate how many features they want in a product when they shop, and once they get home, they experience feature fatigue). “Social context is no different. We see evidence that people underpredict how much fun they’ll have on their own relative to with others.”

Just like overcoming a fear of public speaking or heights, individuals can usually conquer a fear of solo activity in public.

“I think it’s being accustomed to it,” Hamilton says. “You realize you can have fun by yourself, and you let go of the idea that other people are imagining you don’t have any friends.”

THE COST OF FUN NOT HAD
The implications of consumers deciding not to take on pleasurable activities by themselves are broad. For starters, they’re missing out on experiences they could have alone.

“Suppose the person you usually go out with doesn’t like sushi,” Hamilton says. “There’s no reason to deny yourself the experience of a nice sushi dinner.”

We see evidence that people underpredict how much fun they’ll have on their own relative to with others.”
—Rebecca Hamilton, Professor of Marketing and Robin and Michael G. Psaros Chair in Business Administration

Of course, nobody likes going to a restaurant and hearing, “Just one?” Here’s a way in which businesses can be more hospitable to the solo diner, theatergoer, or traveler. In the restaurant, for example, you’ll feel better being seated at a table with one setting than a spot where the server has to remove settings, emphasizing the fact that nobody’s with you to fill those seats.

“We think marketers are leaving a lot of money on the table,” Hamilton says. “There are so many people who have time and money to go out, but they’re inhibited by the discomfort they think they’ll feel going by themselves. If marketers created the belief that it’s OK to go by yourself, they could fill empty seats and create more loyal customers. We think it’s a win-win.”

Hamilton says since singletons tend to be more comfortable at a coffee shop when they’re doing something, rather than sitting alone daydreaming, shops can offer reading material, perhaps reducing the feeling of being alone and judged. Theaters, she suggested, could offer discounts for single tickets, or they could turn the experience into a utilitarian activity by offering programs for patrons to evaluate a performance and share on social media. At a restaurant, some single diners choose to sit at the bar among other solos, which can create opportunities for social interaction; others pick spots at a communal table.

When Hamilton and Ratner presented their research at academic conferences, audiences were receptive. “But you never know how the public will react,” ­Hamilton says. In fact, the findings tapped into an important slice of the American zeitgeist. Among the outlets that covered the study were New York Magazine, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post.

“We’re glad it resonated with people,” Hamilton says. “People said, ‘Thank you for freeing me!’ ” While she does not plan to consult in this area, Hamilton hopes the paper is helpful for marketers, and she’s interested in helping consumers feel better about engaging in activities themselves.

“Maybe all it will take is someone saying, ‘OK, I’m going to try it.’ If it’s fun, they’ll be more likely to do it again.”

 

Published in Georgetown Business magazine, Fall 2015