The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, finds that people often underestimate how much another person likes them after they meet for the first time.
“I always have this sneaking suspicion that maybe my conversation partner didn’t like me or enjoy my company as much as I liked them or enjoyed their company,” says Gus Cooney, a social psychologist at Harvard University who co-authored the paper with Erica Boothby, a postdoctoral psychology researcher at Cornell University. “Is it just me?” he wondered. “Or is it everybody?”
Cooney’s research suggests it’s the latter. The researchers ran a series of experiments in which two people met and talked for the first time, then rated their own conversational performance and the other person’s. Across conversations of varying lengths, some with topics provided and others without, the researchers found that people consistently rated their conversation partner as more likable and enjoyable to talk to than they rated themselves.
Shy people were especially prone to the “liking gap,” Cooney says, but it happened across personality types. There was even evidence, gathered through a study that surveyed college suitemates over an academic year, that the misperception persists beyond first interactions, potentially lasting months or more.
Since it’s impossible for both people in a conversation to be the more likable one, Cooney says this finding suggests that we treat new acquaintances more kindly than we do ourselves — and that people like us more than we think they do.
Several factors are likely driving the liking gap, Cooney says. For one thing, people may be so hyper-focused on their side of the conversation that they can’t accurately gauge how the other person is feeling. “We don’t know what other people are thinking, and so we substitute our own thoughts about ourselves for what other people think,” Cooney explains. “We’re basically projecting what we think of our own performance, and assume that’s what other people think of us.”
People tend to be harder on themselves than they are on new acquaintances. After a conversation, you can look back on everything you said wrong and mentally correct it, or remember instances when you were funnier, kinder or more eloquent. You don’t have the same mental catalogue for someone you’ve just met, so you may “take them more at face value and be much more charitable,” Cooney says.
That’s a potential problem, since underselling yourself socially may promote sadness and anxiety, or cause you to miss out on valuable personal interactions, Cooney says. While the study didn’t look into strategies for overcoming the liking gap, Cooney says simply knowing it exists is a good place to start.
“We always have this post-mortem with ourselves. That little voice in your head turns on, and you start thinking about your conversation,” Cooney says. “Be suspicious of this voice and its accuracy.”
Another new study, published in Nature Human Behavior, supports this type of social pep talk. It found that when a person makes a positive first impression, the other person remembers it — but when an initial meeting goes poorly, the other person is ready and willing to change his mind and give him another chance.
That research was based on a hypothetical scenario in which a stranger either electrically shocked another person for money — creating a wholly negative first impression — or turned down the cash out of concern for the other person. Study participants were willing to give even the electrical shockers a second chance at making a good impression, the researchers found — so after a normal conversation, devoid of electrical shocks, you’ll probably do just fine.