When psychology lecturer Gillian Sandstrom began her master’s degree at Ryerson University, she’d walk from the research lab to her supervisor’s office in downtown Toronto. Gillian usually passed the same hot dog stand along the way. Day after day, she’d walk by the stand. And eventually, without meaning to, she struck up a relationship with the woman who worked there.
“Every day when I walked past her, I would smile and wave,” she says in a podcast with the American Psychological Association. “She would wave back, and it just really made me feel good. And so I just started wondering—what’s going on here? Is this just me, or is this a thing?”
The question, she says, led her into her field of work: researching minimal social interactions, small interactions with strangers or acquaintances that can change the way we think and feel for the better.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that connecting with a stranger prompted Sandstrom’s larger thinking. A new study from behavioral researchers reveals that interacting with strangers can be a key tactic for coming up with new ideas.
An emerging body of research already shows that talking with strangers can make us feel more optimistic and positive, scale up our empathy, boost our belonging, and gift us a sense of connection. This research, though, considers the impact strangers have on our ideas.
The study looks to the role of our relationships in creative idea-making, drawing a line between the people who know us well and those who don’t. And it finds that those we have strong relationships with, like parents, partners, and close friends, aren’t actually the best people to help us brainstorm new endeavors. Instead, we should look to those we have looser connections with.
The difference divides between strong ties, or those strong relationships, and weak ties, which includes distant companions, casual acquaintances, and even strangers. And the research finds that the latter group can help us generate more and better initial ideas. The less we know someone, the more likely they are to challenge our creative process.
“Weak ties increase the chance of ‘creative accidents’ by providing diverse notions that collide in the brain,” the authors write. In other words, strangers and other people who have some distance from us can offer unfamiliar perspectives—which helps prompt more flexible, creative thinking from us. We’re even more likely to give novel insights and fresh perspectives more consideration when they come from someone we don’t know well.
Pier Vittorio Mannucci, a Bocconi University management professor and one of the study’s co-authors, put the theory to the test in his own life. Mannucci was writing a children’s book, I corsari del tempo (or The Time Pirates), where the main character discovers a site for time travel—along with other time travelers themselves. While brainstorming, he reached out to casual acquaintances who’d spent time in international places where the book would be set. The conversations he had helped him surface a number of ideas that eventually established his creative direction.
That’s not to say that the people we’re close to don’t have a role to play in helping us with our ideas. On the contrary, the people we consider our strong ties—our trusted collaborators, co-conspirators, and confidantes—are better for going deep on those ideas. That’s because they often share similar backgrounds or perspectives with us. Instead of offering new insights, the researchers add, close connections can help build upon your existing knowledge or assumptions.
More simply, as Mannucci puts it: come up with ideas with strangers, then refine them with friends.