How the “liking gap” could be holding us back from making new friendships

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Moya Crockett
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When we meet new people, we tend to assume they like us less than they do, according to new research. And this could be hindering our relationships.

Have you ever been introduced to someone – a friend of a friend at a party, perhaps, or someone in your industry at a work event – and walked away from the interaction cursing yourself? Me too. If you’re not in the right headspace, meeting new people can be anxiety-inducing, and it’s all too easy to convince yourself that you made a terrible first impression.

But according to new research, we should all be kinder to ourselves – because we generally make a better first impression than we think. Psychologists at Cornell, Harvard and Yale Universities in the US and the University of Essex in the UK have found that after we have conversations with new people, they generally like us and enjoy our company more than we assume.

This discrepancy between what people really think of us and what we think they think of us is called a “liking gap”, the researchers said, and it can hold us back from developing positive new relationships.

“Our research suggests that accurately estimating how much a new conversation partner likes us – even though this a fundamental part of social life and something we have ample practice with – is a much more difficult task than we imagine,” explain first authors Erica Boothby of Cornell and Gus Cooney of Harvard.

Over the course of five studies, Boothby, Cooney and their co-authors Professor Margaret Clark and Professor Gillian M Sandstrom investigated five different aspects of the liking gap. Their findings were published recently in the journal Psychological Science.

“She thinks I’m boring,” thought the first woman. “She thinks I’m stupid,” thought the second. 

In one experiment, they asked participants who had never met before to have a five-minute chat. The participants then filled out a questionnaire about how much they liked their conversation partner, and how much they thought their conversation partner liked them.

On average, participants liked their conversation partner more than they assumed their conversation partner liked them. Logically, this can’t be true – pointing to the existence of a “liking gap”.

In another experiment, participants reflected on the conversations they’d just had. Most of them believed that their partner had more negative thoughts about them than they really did.

“They seem to be too wrapped up in their own worries about what they should say or did say to see signals of others’ liking for them, which observers of the conservations see right away,” says Clark.

Boothby and Cooney say that “people are often hesitant, uncertain about the impression they’re leaving on others, and overly critical of their own performance” when it comes to social interaction and conversation.

“In light of people’s vast optimism in other domains, people’s pessimism about their conversations is surprising.”

So next time you meet someone new and feel like you fluffed the introduction, don’t write it off as a failure. Chances are, they like you much more than you think – and it could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Images: Getty Images