When we learn more about a stranger, we feel like they know us better too

By Matthew Warren

After finding out details about a stranger, we mistakenly think that they also know about us. As a result, we act more honestly around them, according to a recent study in Nature. And this can have a real-world impact: the team finds that after residents are given biographical information about neighbourhood police officers, the crime rate in nearby areas reduces.

Past research has found that we tend to assume social relationships are reciprocal. Most of the time, this assumption is accurate: someone you think of as a friend will usually consider you a friend too, for instance. But sometimes our social ties are more one-sided: for example, you might learn something about a stranger who doesn’t know you at all. Anuj K. Shah from the University of Chicago and Michael LaForest from Pennsylvania State University wondered whether, in this situation, our tendency to believe that social ties are symmetrical could lead us to mistakenly feel that a stranger does actually know us.

In a series of lab-based studies, this is exactly what the researchers found. In each experiment, online participants were ostensibly paired with another participant (in reality, this partner didn’t exist). Some participants were given information about their partner while others were not, before rating how well this stranger knew them.

In one set of studies, participants answered three multiple-choice questions about their lives; half then saw their partner’s responses to the same questions and half did not. All participants were then told that their partner was trying to guess their own answers. Participants who saw their partner’s responses believed that this stranger understood them better than those who did not.

In further experiments, participants wrote down four true statements and one lie about themselves. Some participants also saw statements supposedly written by a partner. Again, this group believed that the partner would be more likely to guess which of their own statements was a lie than those who didn’t read their partner’s statements. And in another study, the team found that people were more likely to give honest answers to a question if they had read information about their partner — and this effect seemed at least partly driven by the fact that these participants felt their partner knew them better.

These studies all suggested that when we know about strangers, we erroneously think they also know about us. But the really interesting finding came when the researchers stepped out of the lab, to conduct a field experiment in collaboration with the New York City Police Department and Housing Authority. The team developed leaflets containing fairly mundane information about local community police officers, such as their favourite food, hobbies, or reasons for joining the police force. They then sent out these leaflets to every apartment in a number of housing developments in disadvantaged areas. The officers themselves also dropped off cards to local residents containing similar information.

Two months later, the researchers surveyed residents at these housing developments as well as control areas that did not receive leaflets or outreach cards. Residents imagined they had committed a crime that they could be fined for, and were asked how likely it would be that local officers would find out about it. They also rated how well the officers in the area knew them.

The team found that residents of the developments that had received the intervention believed it more likely that local officers would find out about illegal activity than residents of the control areas (though there was no significant effect on residents’ perceptions of how well police officers knew them). Even more strikingly, the team found that immediately after the intervention, there were fewer criminal complaints and arrests in the areas around the developments that had received the intervention than around the control developments.

Giving people information about local police therefore seems to reduce their own sense of anonymity, and by doing so may even reduce crime rates. It’s worth noting that the reduction in crime was only seen in the first three months after the information was sent out, so this may not be a long-term solution. And, as the authors acknowledge, increasing trust in the police requires much broader reforms and changes at a societal level.

Still, the reduction in crime in this study was comparable to the reduction seen when police forces increase their presence in crime hotspots. This suggests that giving people more information about their local officers could be a straightforward method to achieve similar results, “without increasing the number of potentially fraught officer–citizen interactions”, the researchers conclude.

Knowledge about others reduces one’s own sense of anonymity

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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