By Emma Young
Talking to someone new can be daunting, but such conversations “have the power to turn strangers into friends, coffee dates into marriages, and interviews into jobs,” note the authors of a new paper, published in Psychological Science, which has found that perhaps we shouldn’t feel so anxious about them. Across five studies, the researchers explored what strangers thought about each other after chatting, and they found consistent evidence for what they call a “liking gap” – other people like us more than we think. Though in other areas of life many of us have a rosy-tinted view of our abilities, it seems that we tend to under-estimate how we come across socially.
For the first study, Erica Boothby at Cornell University, US, and her fellow researchers simply paired up 34 students for a guided conversation (with ice-breaker questions provided) for five minutes, and got them to complete some personality scales and ratings of the conversation, including what they thought of their partner and how they imagined their partner would rate them. The researchers found that the participants significantly under-estimated how much their partner liked them. And the analysis of the personality data revealed one key driver: the shyer the person, the bigger the liking gap (only for those who ranked low for shyness did the gap disappear entirely).
The second study, of a fresh group of 84 students, explored the potential role of negative thoughts in accounting for the gap. As the researchers note, when we talk to someone we don’t know too well, we often worry about whether we’re coming across as over-chatty, perhaps, or boring. And afterwards, many people have a tendency to be self-critical, focusing on what they did wrong, and judging themselves harshly – thinking perhaps that they talked too much about themselves, or that they did a bad job at telling a joke.
Participants in this second study were asked to talk for five minutes with their partner about whatever they wanted. When they reflected on the conversation afterwards, they reported that, while they were talking, their thoughts about how the other person was viewing them were more negative than their thoughts about their partner – and this difference was related to how much they believed the other person liked them.
For the third study, the researchers asked pairs of strangers (from the general public and students) to talk together for as long as they liked, for up to 45 minutes. Whether the conversation lasted 2 or 45 minutes, the liking gap remained. This study also revealed an “enjoyment gap”: regardless of the length of the conversation, the participants under-estimated how much their partner enjoyed it.
The fourth and fifth studies moved the investigation out of the lab, into real-world settings: workshops for entrepreneurs and members of the British public on “how to talk to strangers”, and into first-year dormitory suites at Yale University.
The workshop data (involving 100 people) showed that participants tended to predict that their conversation partner would find them less interesting than they would find their partner to be – a mistaken belief that was magnified after the conversation. The dorm study, meanwhile, surveyed new students at the start of the fall semester, in September, and then at four further points until May and found that they under-estimated how much their suite-mates liked them at all of the time-points except for the final one. Clearly, the liking gap can persist for a long time.
“Conversation appears to be a domain in which people display uncharacteristic pessimism about their performance,” the researchers note.
This might be adaptive in a way because a bias toward reflecting on our conversational mistakes might prompt us to perform better next time. Strangers, on the other hand, are judging us according a different metric – they have no idea of the performance we’re aiming for, and so no clue when we fall short of that target – making them less critical. And they probably didn’t have high expectations at the outset. People’s predictions about how rewarding it will be to talk to someone new are, as the researchers write, often “pretty dismal…So whereas speakers are thinking that 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 that people underestimate how much their conversation partners enjoy their company.”
An analysis of data from the first study also suggests that because we’re often so wrapped up in thinking about our own performance, and what to say next, we neglect to notice signals from the other person that indicate that they’re actually enjoying the conversation.
The main message from these five studies? In the researchers’ words: “others like us more than we know.”