As a young child, I was painfully shy. I’d watch other children at play in the park, wishing I could join their ranks for a game of tag, hide-and-seek, or jump rope, but too scared to approach them. Eventually, my mother would come to the rescue. She’d get up from the bench where she was sitting with the other moms, take my hand, and ask the other kids if I could play too. The answer was always yes (I’m sure the other children didn’t want to get in trouble with their own moms), and then I’d be all set for the rest of the afternoon… until the pattern repeated itself the next day.
I became less awkward and more outgoing as I grew up, thankfully—though I never turned into what you’d call a social butterfly. Today, I feel comfortable giving public lectures in large auditoriums, and having conversations in small groups, but I still tend to dodge situations in which I’m expected to ‘mingle’ with a roomful of strangers (I’m working on it).
The reasons for my aversion could be manifold. For one, I might be carrying some residual childhood fear of rejection. But beyond that possibility, one likely element is that I tend to underestimate how much people like me after I meet them. As most of us do.
A new research paper, published last week in Psychological Science, reports that the common concern that new people may not like us, or that they may not enjoy our company, is largely unfounded.
Erica Boothby of Cornell University, and her colleagues Gus Cooney, Gilliam Sandstrom, and Margaret Clark, of Harvard University, University if Essex, and Yale University, conducted a series of studies to find out what our conversation partners really think of us. In doing so, they discovered a new cognitive illusion they call “the liking gap:” our failure to realize how much strangers appreciate our company after a bit of conversation.
The researchers observed the disconnect in a variety of situations: strangers getting acquainted in the research laboratory, first-year college students getting to know their dorm mates over the course of many months, and community members meeting fellow participants in personal development workshops. In each scenario, people consistently underestimated how much others liked them.
The discrepancy in perspectives happened for conversations that spanned from 2 minutes to 45 minutes, and was long-lasting. For much of the academic year, as dorm mates got to know each other and even started to develop enduring friendships, the liking gap persisted.
The data also revealed some of the potential reasons for the divide: we are often harsher with ourselves than with others, and our inner critic prevents us from appreciating how positively other people evaluate us. Not knowing what our conversation partners really think of us, we use our own thoughts as a proxy—a mistake, because our thoughts tend to be more negative than reality.
As the paper’s authors state, “conversations are a great source of happiness in our lives,” but they could bring us even greater joy if we only realized that “others like us more than we know.” Which is a good thing to keep in mind as you survey the imposing room of strangers at your next cocktail party, mix and mingle reception, or company happy hour. I know I’ll try to.