Remember when you were a kid, and starting a conversation or making friends was as simple as just wandering up to someone and saying, “My big brother’s name is Jonathan,” or “My dog ate a whole roll of quarters”?
Somewhere along the line, the bar for social overtures gets raised, and we’re going to have to step up our game if we want to meet new people. That’s true in one-on-one encounters as well as in group situations, where the invisible but painfully tangible divide between strangers is even more evident.
This, of course, is what makes icebreakers so useful. An icebreaker can be something as simple as a funny comment, or it might take the form of a group game or a series of questions designed to bridge the gap between strangers.
There’s no doubt about it—when used skillfully, this stuff works. But why?
To answer that, we first need to understand what’s going on in the brain when strangers connect.
The Chemistry of Ice
There’s a whole slew of brain functions involved in the act of meeting someone new. For starters, the ventral tegmental area of the brain (VTA) appears to have a significant influence on one’s level of motivation to make new friends. It rewards social behavior via feelgood chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine. Researchers have found that when they used light to stimulate this region of the brain, subjects were more likely to socially engage with strangers. (It should be noted, however, that those subjects were mice.)
Other research has shown that when forming a first impression of someone, we use sensory cues and clues to size up the other party’s personality, intelligence, socioeconomic status and aggression levels, among other things.
A 2009 study linked the solidification of first impressions to increased activity in two different brain regions: the amygdala (associated with emotion) and the posterior cingulate cortex (associated with the assessment of situational value).
First impressions tend to influence our long-term perception of individuals. Much of this can be attributed to what’s called the primacy effect: the memory’s inclination to retain the first item of information in a sequence more readily than information that comes later in the same sequence.
Our hardwired need for social acceptance, which appears to be intimately tied to our instinct to pass on our DNA, often makes for some awkwardness and tension when we’re meeting unfamiliar people. This is often magnified in groups of individuals from different walks of life, but considering the importance of first impressions, it goes without saying that this is a consistent dynamic in almost any “getting to know you” situation.
Why Icebreakers Work
So, there’s a lot riding on our first encounters with one another. As ready-made, non-threatening, inclusive, non-divisive kickstarts for social interaction, icebreakers appear to reduce the fear and anxiety inherent in facing the risk of negative judgment from strangers.
As Penn State psychology professor Susan Mohammed told the webzine The Cut, icebreakers can help create a psychologically safe environment in which one can open up, bond with others and embrace unfamiliar situations without fear of being shamed. “Having people do weird and crazy stuff or step out and do something wild—having people feel kind of uncomfortable, basically—would begin to help foster that,” she explained.
Certain types of icebreakers promote self-disclosure: the intentional sharing of personal information. Unsurprisingly, research has shown that communicating meaningful information about oneself creates significantly stronger connections between people than small talk does. In short, self-disclosure is the social equivalent of Krazy Glue, creating in minutes the kind of bonds that might otherwise take hours or days to form.
In group situations, icebreakers can ease the first stage of team development in a structure known as Tuckman’s model. Herein, the members of a group establish a sense of trust in one another, build a collective identity, set goals together and establish the roles that individuals will play within the team.
Icebreakers can work especially well in classrooms. Along with reducing stress, they’ve been shown to improve motivation and enthusiasm for learning by challenging and engaging students.
When Icebreakers Don’t Work
Let’s not paint too idyllic a picture here—there are plenty of people who absolutely hate icebreakers. A good portion of the time, this is because the ones they’ve participated in have been awkward, cheesy, overly goofy, time-consuming, irrelevant to the overall group mission or some combination thereof.
In the spirit of helping things go smoothly, here’s a list of pitfalls to avoid, stuff to emphasize and suggestions of icebreakers that are likely to go over well.
Or, if you’re the experimental type, you can just walk up to a stranger and tell them your dog ate an entire roll of quarters. You might not forge a lasting connection that way, but it’s guaranteed to start a memorable dialogue.
Damon Orion is a writer, musician, artist, and teacher based in Santa Cruz, CA. He has written for Revolver, Guitar World, Spirituality & Health, Classic Rock, High Times and other publications. Read more of his work at damonorion.com.