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The Liking Gap

Why we underestimate others' opinions of us, and why it matters.

Humans, it is said by both psychologists and novelists, are a vain lot. Numerous studies suggest that we frail humans, while quick to find fault in others, are blind to our own foibles. We forget past incidents that reflect badly on us, while memories of our noble acts shine with clarity. Vanity controls our memory and reasoning, helping us focus on how circumstances failed us, and blinding us to how we ourselves failed. We are susceptible to flatters because, so it is said, we find them more believable than critics. But no flatterer, it is supposed, is more persistent and effective than our own self-serving brain.

How many people, hearing this description of an embedded vanity that offers a glowing version of a self, well-liked, talented, and forever on the good side, conclude that they must be outliers?

Self-serving vanity is in fact more occasional, hit and miss, than supposed. Self-criticism, embarrassment, and shame are common experiences in our daily rounds of social chess. In fact, those whose social skin is an armor of impenetrable self-righteousness and imperturbable confidence are the outliers. Sometimes we marvel at these exceptional people. Sometimes we loathe them. Often we are taken in by them, assuming that they must have special qualities to warrant their confidence.

As social beings, people not only want to spend time together, they also want to be liked by others. This stems not from a superficial wish to please other people, but a fundamental need to be included in a group. Exclusion from a group would have, for our ancestors, be tantamount to death. Key to human development, consistent with this basic need, is close human interaction in which infants are not only fed, warmed, and protected from physical harm, but in which they also learn to “read” other people’s faces. They quickly learn the meanings of this distinctively human lexicon. Before they can walk or talk or even crawl, babies expect that spread, upturned lips will be accompanied by crinkly eyes, the chirp of a happy tone of voice, and joyful attentiveness. They monitor, constantly, the effects their movements, gestures, and sounds have on those around them.

In infancy, we are well on our way to developing that crucial social skill of processing a face within 40 milliseconds, to form a judgment as to whether the person is friend or foe, competent or likable. At the same time, we process information about others' impressions of us. Do they approve or disapprove of us? Are we, in their eyes, likable, competent, trustworthy—or not?

The pioneering psychologist William James believed that such judgments were necessary to human survival: “I should not be [living] now,” he reflected, “had I not become sensitive to looks of approval or disapproval on the faces among which my life is cast.” But this cognitive detective work is exhausting and it is fallible.

The errors we are likely to make are now a rich source of interest to philosophers, but one error that has—until recently—escaped attention is just how we often underestimate others’ responses to us. Instead, we are told, vanity misleads us into congratulating ourselves on how brilliant, charming, and sophisticated we seem. Like the expensively dressed woman in Robert Burns' poem, people are (so it is said) oblivious to the lice crawling on our fashionable bonnets.

Yet teens who have been participating in my research focus on their own awkwardness, however minor and brief, as they walk away from a social conversation. Their response to the question, “What impression do you think you made?” is largely negative. “Why did I say that?” they ask. “What a dork I am!” they conclude. It is only politeness codes, they believe, that hide people's negative responses from view.

Look more carefully at recent research and you will find that it is not only teens who walk away from social encounters—particularly with people they don’t know well—convinced they have made a poor impression.[1, 2] Unfortunately, these initial assessments have a habit of persisting, and therefore shape subsequent interactions. If I think someone thinks I am ignorant or unfeeling or a bigot, then I am more likely to be defensive, edgy, uncooperative, and even hostile. The concern we have with others’ judgment of us, combined with our systematic underestimation of how much others like us, can blight our relationships before they really begin.

This New Year, reminded that cooperation and connection are indeed central to survival, we would do well to acknowledge and manage self-criticism, to encourage the confidence that has been mistaken for vanity, and assume that others see the best in us.

References

1. Boothby, E.J., Cooney, G., , Sandstrom, G.M., & Clarke, M.S. (2018) The Liking Gap in Conversations: Do people like us more than we think? Psychological Science, 29(11), 1742-1756

2. Mastroianni, A.M., Cooney, G., Boothby, E.J. & Reece, A.G. (2021) The liking gap in groups and teams. Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 162, 109-122.

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