In Search of a Lost Friend: A Study in Human Psychology

Phnom Penh, Cambodia • June 2017 • Length of Read: 5 Minutes

“Hey guys, I've got a hypothetical research question:

Suppose you're meeting a friend in a random European town or city that neither of you has been to before. You don't have the chance to plan a meeting place beforehand and you cannot contact one another when there. You just know that you will both be there on the same day. Where would you go? How do you find one another?

If you could comment below and answer that would be awesome. I'll let you know soon why I'm asking.”

Recently I’ve been burrowing down the rabbit hole of human psychology. Whilst writing these words I’m currently sitting on the rooftop of a quaint and cosy little café in Ho Chi Minh City; what seems like a million miles away from the hectic Vietnamese traffic racing around the streets below. I’ve been on the road for five months now and studying the way in which people interact with one another, in particular strangers, has fascinated me. On a daily basis, I’m subjected to meeting new people and listening to the conversation of others in hostel dorm rooms and bars. In fact, when just trying to write this paragraph I’ve stopped and had a ten-minute conversation with three lovely Germans at the table next to me about my books. So much for productivity and getting into my flow state, I know. There’s clearly just something far too intriguing about seeing a foreign traveller hammering away on the keyboard of a laptop.

Anyway, a while ago I mysteriously posted the above italicised question on my Facebook page with no real explanation as to why. A friend of mine living in Auckland had recommended a book to me called What If?, subtitled: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions and one of the chapters which really grabbed me was regarding the possibility of two immortal humans, placed at random points on planet Earth, actually managing to bump into one another. In attempting to answer this, the author drew upon an American study that was done in the pre-mobile phone 1970s, which puzzled a similar question to the one I asked my Facebook followers.

Back then, the best logical solution to finding your lost friend was deemed to be going to the town’s main post office and waiting at the receiving window where out-of-town packages arrive. The inventor of the puzzle’s logic was that it’s the only place that every town in the U.S. has exactly one of, and which everyone would know where to find. To me, this argument appears a little weak and outdated. There are far too many psychological factors in place to assume that everyone will follow this same thought process. I was curious. I wanted to know what people would do if placed in a similar predicament in the current era of 2017 but didn’t have access to the modern day smartphone and wifi technology with which we are now so accustomed.

Now, by nature of what I write about; my age; and my lifestyle, my primary demographic is twenty-something adventurous Westerners. The suggestions of brothels; pool halls; strip clubs; and Irish bars as possible meeting places were, therefore, inevitable. What could initially be dismissed as stupid, albeit funny, answers, however, have actually collectively formed the second of three categories that I’ve filtered the responses into.

The first category of response is what I will refer to as landmarks. These were the most common and basic responses, with no intuition about what the other person will be thinking required. Someone suggested to wait at the base of the tallest building in the city because it is likely to catch your eye just as much as the other persons, others suggested the main town square; train station; airport baggage reclaim; McDonald's; cathedral, and art gallery. The post office would fall into this category.

The second category is what I call inside jokes. This is more effective as you are actually using what you know already about the person to make an educated assessment about what their thought process is in the same situation. In addition to the aforementioned, ‘go to the equivalent place where you first met them’ was a popular response, as was ‘the common area of a popular hostel’ and ‘a hipster café’. If you and your friend have a shared love for flat whites then it’s highly possible that they will kill some time in a local edgy hangout, just as if your friend loves to get a lap dance at the end of a night out then you may well find them in a strip club. A silly suggestion at first that actually makes sense if you take into account a person’s interest and hobbies; not that I’d call lap dancing a recreational pastime.

There is a third category, however, which unanimously seemed to be regarded as the outright way of meeting your friend as efficiently and effectively as possible. A category that both What if? and the 1970s study failed to address. I call this category, public nuisance. The major flaw with the landmarks category, and henceforth the suggested solution of the post office, is that, even if your friend did decide to embark upon a city sightseeing tour, the chances of them spotting you in such crowded and busy places is extremely slim. Imagine trying to find a friend next to the Eiffel Tower even if you knew they were going to be there. I still lose people in the bloody supermarket. The same flaw is also at play in theinside jokescategory. Yes, there is an almost 100% chance of meeting your friend there if you’ve assumed correctly, but if they don’t make the same deduction then there is a 0% chance that you’re going to bump into one another accidentally. Unless you make yourself known that is…

The highest voted response that I received to my question? ‘Walk around bollocks naked and cause a city-wide commotion’.

What better way for a friend to find you than to stir up an event that draws maximum attention to yourself. Whether we like to think it or not, humans operate primarily under a herd mentality. We are constantly drawn to things that others are looking at, or commenting on things that others are talking about. If somebody decides to get stark naked and run about the town centre, then you can bet your damn ass that everyone nearby will soon gather round for a glimpse of the action. The only question now is, how do you cause such a public nuisance that you find your friend, but don’t have them bailing you out of jail for indecent exposure a short while after?

Perhaps I should just heed the advice given to me by my crazy and psychotic friend Lara: “If you’re talking about a girl, no need to meet her, just stay at home. If it’s not a girl then it simply doesn’t exist, since you have no friends. So there’s no need to bother yourself with this kind of ‘hypothetical research question’. Stay at home and close the door.”

Well, that's me told.