PEOPLE LIKE YOU MORE THAN YOU THINK, A NEW STUDY FINDS.
There’s nothing worse than meeting a new person and having the distinct feeling that you’re messing up—and that the other person is thinking poorly of you as a result. But a new study in the journal Psychological Science offers good reason to let yourself off the hook. Researchers from Cornell, Yale, Harvard, and the University of Essex find that people almost always think their conversation mate’s opinion of them is lower than it actually is. This “liking gap,” as the authors say, occurs across ages and can take months to disappear. Luckily, most of it is in our heads.
A series of experiments looked at how people’s predictions of a conversation partner’s feelings about them compared to the partner’s actual feelings. In one study, participants (Yale students) came into the lab and had a five-minute conversation with another participant. They rated how much they liked the other person, and how much they thought the other person liked them. It turned out that people routinely underestimated how other people perceived them.
Followup experiments found that the same phenomenon existed whether the conversation was short, medium, or long.
And it didn’t exist just in the lab, but in the real world as well. The team recruited 100 people taking part in “How to Talk to Strangers” workshops in the U.K. The participants answered the same types of questions as before, to measure liking gap, but did it both before and after talking to a stranger for five minutes. The liking gap was present both before and after the conversation, which suggests that in the real world, people both expect a liking gap to occur and they actually experience it.
Interestingly, the liking gap diminished over time—another experiment found that after eight months of living together, college students’ perceptions about how much their roommates liked them were actually accurate. But again, it took months for the gap to disappear.
The authors suggest a few psychological explanations for the liking gap phenomenon. One is that people are often their own worst critics: we often spend time recalling what we did “wrong” so we can improve for the next time. So a person may go over what he or she perceives as foibles, although the conversation mate generally has no clue that there were foibles at all.
“After telling a new story,” the authors write, “speakers might think about how to get to the point quicker, fine-tune a punchline, or liven up their delivery, and this might make their initial story seem a bit dull by comparison. But listeners do not have this same incentive to improve a partner’s story for next time. For them, they got the main point, the punchline was funny enough, and the delivery seemed perfectly fine.”
Another reason that we underestimate others’ opinions of us is that people hold themselves to higher standards than they do other people. In fact, people often have awfully low expectations for a conversation with a new person, so their experience of you is likely much higher than they expected it would be. The authors write, “whereas speakers are thinking they have failed to live up to their ideal, listeners are thinking that it could have been much worse, and this different standard of comparison for oneself and for others may well be one reason why people underestimate how much their conversation partners enjoy their company.”
Finally, the authors suggest that people often think that their nervousness and their emotions are on full display to the other person. But this is obviously not the case—people are not psychic, and often have no sense that their conversation mate is self-conscious or bumbling at all. “In people’s minds,” the authors write, “they are stammering and nervous and searching for the right words, but others cannot see the inside of their minds; rather, they are paying attention to overt behavior.”
The study is a good reminder to relax a little during first meetings. People aren’t nerly as judgey as we think they are, and their opinions are likely much more generous than we believe.
People systemically underestimate how much their conversation partners like them and enjoy their company,” the authors conclude. “Conversations are a great source of happiness in our lives, but even more than we realize, it seems, as others like us more than we know.”