Dongyi Liu / Flickr

At that time of day all over the world, most people are experiencing a "largely pleasant social interaction."

If there's a time when you'd seem least likely to be doing the same thing as someone else, a good guess might be about 7 p.m. Late at night, most of us are sleeping. During the day, most of us are working. And early in the morning most of us are somewhere between sleep and work. It's the evening that provides the most flexibility: maybe we're putting in some late hours at the office, maybe we're eating dinner, maybe we're watching TV. In the grand scheme of things, 7 p.m. feels like the snowflake of o'clocks.

Which makes the upshot of a very original new study that much more fascinating: At 7 p.m., around the world, we all feel more or less the same about what we're doing. That's the finding from a massive study team, with 33 worldwide collaborators, led by psychologist Esther Guillaume of the University of California at Riverside. Sampling more than 5,400 individuals from 20 countries, the researchers found that people across countries (and within the same) made highly similar assessments of life at 7 p.m.

From their paper, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Personality (spotted by the Neuroskeptic):

[T]he situational experience of individuals around the world at 7 p.m. was, on average, highly similar and largely pleasant, and the homogeneity of individual situational experience was nearly as large between as within countries. This finding emerged even though the study examined situational experience in 20 countries, on 5 continents, using materials rendered in 14 different languages.

Motivated by the fact that research into mundane situations "remains rare," Guillaume and her fellow researchers sought to assess the "psychological aspects" of a typical evening setting. First they asked study participants to give an open-ended summary of what they'd done the previous night at 7 p.m.: who they were with, what they were doing, where they were. Here's a global sample of some of the responses:

  • U.S.: "My cousin came over and we were relaxing on the balcony after a day of snowboarding. We were smoking cigarettes and drinking wine."
  • Singapore: "I was at my grandma's house eating dinner. I was with my cousins, aunts, uncles, grandma and my own family."
  • Japan: "I sang using the karaoke box with my friend."
  • Italy: "I was cooking pizza with my boyfriend."
  • Estonia: "At about 7 I was sitting in the sauna with my grandmother, adding some steam and whisking."

But open-ended answers are tough to compare across cultures. So the researchers then administered a test to gauge the "psychological properties of situations" called the Riverside Situational Q‐sort. The RSQ offers 89 wide-ranging descriptions of a situation—it's "potentially enjoyable," or it "calls for self-restraint," or it "contains physical threats"—and asks participants to rate them on a scale of least to most characteristic of the situation in question (in this case, the previous 7 p.m.).

If that sounds a bit complicated, trying seeing the RSQ like this: a way to organize and systematize the types of subjective responses that might otherwise make a cross-cultural comparison difficult or meaningless. (And if you're still curious and speak English, you can test the RSQ here without having your data saved: click on the U.S. flag, enter "amtest1" as the Study ID and "am001" as the participant ID.)

Across all 20 countries, participants gave very consistent RSQ ratings to life at 7 p.m. In general, people found whatever they were doing at that time to be "simple and clear-cut," "social," and "potentially enjoyable"; they also felt they were free to speak and feel a range of emotions. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the lowest-rated descriptions made reference to abuse, physical or emotional threats, loss of freedom, or deception.

At a national level, Canada gave responses most similar to all other countries—with the greatest similarity occurring between it and the United States. (While it might seem unsurprising for Canadians and Americans to be doing or feeling similar things at night, it also confirms the RSQ as a metric.) The United States also formed a close pairing with Australia, The Netherlands, Spain, England, and Singapore. Japan and South Korea were the least similar to other countries in the group, with South Korea and Denmark forming the least-comparable cross-country pairing.

Within-country ratings were predictably more similar than across-country ratings, but not remarkably so. Overall, among the 20 participating countries, the researchers noted that "cross‐cultural similarities seem to be a more notable feature of situational experience than cross‐cultural differences." They continue:

Around the world, the typical situation at 7 p.m. can be described as a largely pleasant social interaction.

Where differences did occur, they tended to be about negative experiences more than positive ones. The researchers suspect that's because negative situations might call more attention to social norms, which tend to vary widely across cultures. Or perhaps it has something to do with Tolstoy's introductory insight to Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Obviously a study this vast will carry some caveats. The most glaring are that despite the high sample size, most study participants were college students, with a median age of 22 years old. The RSQ itself was developed by U.S. researchers, rather than a global research consortium, and this was its maiden cross-cultural voyage. Neuroskeptic has a smart take on the study's limitations:

Overall this is a fascinating study and a rich dataset. But while the sample was drawn from five continents, the participants were not selected at random: all of them were students or 'members of college communities'. What’s more, all of the participating nations were politically stable and at least middle-income. Is life so generally happy in Iraq, South Sudan, or Haiti?

Surely not. But it's still somewhat comforting to know that, in much of the world, 7 p.m. is as pleasantly unspectacular there as it is here.

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