You are more likeable than you think

September 28, 2018

When Sally Field accepted the Oscar for Best Actress in 1984 for her role in Places in the Heart, she blurted out, “You like me, right now, you like me!”—radiating her thrill at being validated by the members of her industry.

Most of us don’t get that type of affirmation on a world stage—however, a study published in September by the Association for Psychological Science suggests that the people you meet probably like you more than you think.

“Our research suggests that accurately estimating how much a new conversation[al] partner likes us — even though this a fundamental part of social life and something we have ample practice with — is a much more difficult task than we imagine,”  co-authors Erica Boothby, a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University; and Gus Cooney, a social psychologist at Harvard University, told CNBC in a recent interview.

In the first of a series of experiments, the researchers provided pairs of students with ice-breakers for five-minute conversations. The students then independently answered questions about how much they liked their conversational partner and how much they thought their conversational partner liked them.

It turns out the students consistently underestimated how well-liked they were, a phenomenon the researchers call the “liking gap.” The shyer someone was, the more they sold themselves short, the network news outlet reports.

They found further evidence in real-world settings and over long periods of time. Freshman at Yale University underestimated how much other residents of their dorms liked them for months throughout the school year. The gaps only disappeared by the end of the second semester.

How can this gap be explained? It may stem in part from the fact that people tend to hold themselves to high standards. The researchers posit that when you’re critical of yourself, you can project that criticism onto others.

“We’re self-protectively pessimistic and do not want to assume the other likes us before we find out if that’s really true,” says a third co-author, Yale University Psychology Professor Margaret S. Clark, told CNBC.

This instinct actually could be protective—and even beneficial, the researchers believe. They note, “People’s harsh inner critic can be functional when it comes to self-improvement.” For instance, if you tell a joke and sense that your audience has lost interest by the time you get to the punch line, the next time you tell it you might hasten the delivery and get a few more laughs.

But if self-doubt inhibits you from socializing, you may want to remind yourself that other people are not likely to be as hard on yourself as you are. That could give you the confidence you need to do some networking. After all, “conversations have the power,” the authors write, “to turn strangers into friends, coffee dates into marriages, and interviews into jobs.”

Research contact: ericajboothby@gmail.com

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