Hug a stranger, change your city: a social trust photo album

by Seth Geiser on

‘Do you two know each other?”

Hug1

Study after study has confirmed that social connectedness is a prime determinant of human well-being. It’s interesting to note then, that the vast majority of people in our lives, from passing acquaintances to old friends, were initially strangers.

When is the moment that strangers become people worth trusting? Richard Renaldi explored this idea in his photo series, ‘Touching Strangers’, in which he encouraged strangers in New York City to pose for intimate family photos. Inspired by his work, we decided to take it further and test the results as one of three experiments conducted during the launch of Happy City at the Guggenheim. In our Old Friends Experiment, we encouraged strangers to pose for photos as though they were, yes, old friends. And then we tested to see if their embraces had an effect on their mental image of that stranger, and social trust in general.

It was wonderful to see so many strangers connecting. Apart from getting a fun slideshow, we found support for the theory that face-to-face, trust-building moments between strangers cause us to change our perception of all the other strangers out there in the city. People who got close to strangers for this exercise reported much higher levels of trust for other strangers in the city than people who didn’t participate. For example, they were much more likely to say that if they lost their wallet or purse out on the street, a stranger would return it.

This is important because social trust is the lubricant that keeps cities functioning. It’s good for the economy. It helps us create relationships that steer us through hard times. And international surveys show that social trust is a key predictor of individual happiness.

We’re left with the question: How can we design city spaces and systems to enable easy, convivial, trust-building moments among strangers?