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The Psychology of Why You Love Humans of New York

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, explains the psychology behind how Humans of New York has garnered millions of fans.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,

I recently interviewed Humans of New York creator, photographer, and interviewer Brandon Stanton. Check out our conversation here.

Our conversation got me thinking about why people love HONY so much. In the comments section of the HONY blog or social media pages, you’ll often see people write “I do this, too!” or “I relate to her a lot” or most simply, “ME.” I think HONY offers many things—empathy, validation—but the biggest thing I think people get out of it is normalization

If a random stranger shown on HONY does or thinks something you thought you were alone in doing or thinking, it breaks the grip of “I’m the only one.” Even just two is infinitely more powerful than one. You’re not alone anymore. And, if there are two, there might just be more, which—slowly but truly—inches toward full-blown community.

Think of the famous conformity experiments from, appropriately, the 1950s. Psychologist Solomon Asch gathered a group of seven confederates and one unsuspecting subject in a room, where they were shown a card with a line drawn on it. Then they were shown another card with three different lines—a, b, and c—and were asked to identify which of the three lines matched the length of the line from the first card. When, as planned, the confederates all gave the same wrong answer, our subject, after a lot of double-takes and obvious discomfort, would also give the wrong answer fully 75% of the time, even though it defied every part of his experience. The kicker? When even one of the seven confederates gave the right answer, the subject almost always breathed a sigh of relief and gave the right answer, too. One alone risks looking like an idiot, but two can stand as a team.  

HONY has the same effect: when someone else—especially someone willing to be seen by millions of HONY followers later that day—shares your experience, it sweeps away any hidden shame and secrecy. So thank the brave souls of HONY for normalizing all the vulnerabilities in your life you preferred to keep under your rug. Chances are you’re perfectly normal after all.  

Here are three HONY portraits that are honest and authentic for each individual, but share sentiments that garner “Me too!” from untold others. Maybe you’ll see yourself in their faces and stories.

 

“I have this image of myself as the fun friend who is easy going, always good for a laugh, and always ready to listen to your problems. But I don’t share my own problems because I’m afraid that my friendship will seem less valuable if I do. I’m afraid that if I’m sad, I’ll seem boring. I don’t want people to start thinking: ‘This isn’t fun anymore.’ Or ‘This isn’t what I signed up for.’ So I tend to shut myself off. I’ll tell you all about my interests and activities. But when it comes to how I’m doing, I don’t like to move beyond ‘I’m fine.’ So I have all sorts of tricks to keep the conversation focused on the other person. I’m a great listener. And I love details: ‘Me? I’m great! But what about you? I seem to remember that you were going to dinner with your sister-in-law last night, right? At the Italian restaurant? Was the linguine better this time? Less crispy?’”

A photo posted by Humans of New York (@humansofny) on

I love this woman’s honesty and bravery. Her thinking is super common, especially among women. Here’s how it usually goes: we assume that if friends saw who we “really” are, they’d hightail it out the door and we’d be left alone and rejected. We also assume that if we’re not serving our friends by being the entertainer or the helper, we’d be rejected. 

But it’s a double standard. And it actually does a disservice to a friend to assume they are so fragile that they wouldn’t be able to handle any of our struggles, or that they’re so selfish or mean that they wouldn’t want to. (Plus, if a friend does, in fact, only sign on for the good times, it’s questionable if that person is a true or worthy friend.)

In a true and healthy friendship, disclosure is reciprocal. This equality keeps each person on the same level—eye to eye, as it were, not one looking down on the other. And interestingly, disclosure has the secret effect of making someone feel closer to us and vice versa. We worry that disclosure will leave us adrift, when in fact it brings us closer. 

See Also: Humans of New York's Brandon Stanton on How to Talk to Strangers

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