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Why People Probably Like You More Than You Think

Research on overcoming the "liking gap."

Key points

  • People tend to underestimate just how much others like them, for several interesting reasons.
  • What is the liking gap? We underestimate just how much people actually enjoy our company.

We’ve all been there. We have a conversation with someone—maybe a potential new friend, a work colleague, or a new romantic partner—and, even if nothing particularly dreadful happened, we find ourselves excessively worrying about the kind of impression we’ve made. These worries can take many forms: “Did I share too much?” “Did I stammer or look uncomfortable?” “Did that comment sound pretentious?” “Did I ask enough questions?” Or even “Did I have spinach in my teeth?” Because of our deep desire to connect and be accepted, these worries make some sense. We want to perform well, look like we have it together, and be liked.

The Good News

Given these wishes, there is actually very good news: In general, our conversation partners aren’t nearly as critical as we might expect. Even better news: they tend to like us and enjoy our company much more than we think they do. Researchers call this discrepancy in perspectives—what you think someone thought of you versus what they actually thought of you—the liking gap. It’s one key reason why social interactions can be a source of stress and worry, even after they’re over. We simply underestimate just how much people actually enjoy our company.

In a series of studies, researcher Erica Boothby and colleagues investigated the liking gap by examining several types of social interactions. In one study, strangers met in a laboratory and performed a brief get-to-know-you task. In another, people got acquainted as part of a personal development workshop. And to test how the liking gap plays out over longer periods of time, a third study looked at first-year college roommates over the course of an academic year.

Across these different settings, types of people, and lengths of time, Boothby found evidence for the liking gap, where people guessed that their conversation partners liked them less and enjoyed the conversation less than they actually did. And the liking gap is persistent: For the first-year college roommates, the liking gap persisted for the vast majority of the school year. (It did seem to be erased by May, just as students were packing up to go home for the summer.) Interestingly, it seems to be even more exaggerated for people who are shy and who have low self-esteem.

A second series of studies, by Adam Mastroianni and colleagues, examined the liking gap in people who were assigned to collaborate on a project in small groups. Even while people were focused on their work, the liking gap existed here, too: many people thought that their group members liked them less than they actually did. And the outcomes had consequences for work-related outcomes. Those who guessed (wrongly) that others disliked them were less likely to ask group members for help, were less likely to offer feedback to group members, and were less likely to want to work with the group again in the future.

Why Does the Liking Gap Exist?

To some extent, it is driven by the negative, self-critical thoughts we often have during and after conversations, when we are feeling judgmental of things that our conversation partners couldn’t possibly detect (our own well-hidden anxieties, for example) or just weren’t paying attention to. This inner monologue is inaccessible to others but extremely powerful for us.

On the surface, this self-criticism can seem well-intended. We want to be liked, and we are exquisitely sensitive to any social blunders that we might make so that we can repair them and hopefully perform better in the future. But, as this research points out, we can take these concerns a bit too far and spend a lot of time and energy worrying about conversational missteps that no one even picked up on. We can also carry these worries forward into future social interactions, making social connections even more difficult. Plus, we often forget that our conversation partners may be going through their own self-criticisms as well. Instead of judging our blunders, they are probably focused on their own.

Make It Work For You

The next time you catch yourself being self-critical after social interaction, consider making a mental or written list of the observations that are coming to mind. For example, you might catch yourself thinking, “I talked too much about politics during that conversation” or “I didn’t maintain eye contact.” Now, look at your list. How likely is it that your conversation partner actually noticed these things? How likely is it that they were bothered by them? Make your best guess.

Next, can you come up with anything that they might have said or done that they could be worried about? (Depending on how long ago this conversation was, this might not be possible.)

And simply reminding yourself of the findings of this research might even be comforting next time you catch yourself in a spiral of self-criticism. While you are worrying about your own performance, the person you interacted with is likely to be doing the same. The existence of self-criticism and social stress is not exactly good news, but it is hopefully comforting to know that it is something shared by almost everyone.

LinkedIn image: antoniodiaz/Shutterstock. Facebook image: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

References

Boothby, E. J., Cooney, G.. Sandstrom, G. M., & Clark, M. S. (2018). The liking gap in conversations: Do people like us more than we think? Psychological Science, 29(11), 1742-1756.

Mastroianni, A. M., Cooney, G., Boothby, E. J., & Reece, A. G. (2021). The liking gap in groups and teams. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 162, 109–122. https://doi.org/10.1016

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