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Initial conversations go better than people think

A new study suggests that we all underestimate how much people like us after a first meeting.

Pulp Fiction

Key Takeaways
  • A new study finds that people consistently underestimate how much a new conversation partner liked them.
  • The likability gap exists for almost everybody, but is more pronounced for the shy. It can also last for months despite regular meetings with the same person.
  • The findings suggest we all try to play it safe with our appraisals of how much we’re liked, and point the way to better conversational habits for everybody.

Have you ever had a conversation with somebody and left not knowing if they liked you or not? Have you ever thought of the perfect thing to say long after the conversation ended? Has the ideal follow-up question that would have clinched the interview occurred to you long after it would have been useful? If you said yes to any of these, you’re in good company.

A study published in Psychological Sciencein Septemberexamined the difference between how well two people thought an initial conversation between them went. The scientists focused on the discrepancy between how much people thought their partner liked them and how much they were actually liked. The difference was often substantial.

The researchers found that this difference, which they dubbed the “liking gap,” was almost always present. People tended to underestimate how well a conversation went and supposed that their new acquaintance didn’t care for them. Test subjects who admitted to being shy, even slightly shy, had the worst go of it; with a liking gap larger than anybody else’s.

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How did they do it?

The researchers carried out several experiments revolving around two people meeting for the first time and then answering questions on how it went.

In the first study, participants had a short conversation consisting of icebreakers and then filled out a questionnaire about it. They were asked questions about how much they liked the person they spoke to, how the conversation went, and how much they thought their partner liked them. It was found that most people liked the person they talked to while also thinking that person didn’t like them.

In a follow-up experiment, test subjects were placed in longer conversations and then asked questions similar to those of the previous test. It was found that the length of the discussion didn’t do much to reduce the liking gap. Another experiment involving actual college roommates showed that the gap remains after several conversations, slowly fading away only after numerous interactions that can span over months.

Part of the study had participants explain what drove their impression of their partner and what they thought had influenced the other person. Most people presumed they had revealed much more anxiety and behaved more awkwardly than their partner’s answers suggested. This implies that we miss more behavioral cues than we think and that our body language might not give away as much as we fear it does.

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Why do we do this?

The authors suggest that we are too worried about our own answers and behaviors during a conversation to fully understand the cues others are giving us. Dr. Margret Clark, a co-author who works at the Yale department of psychology, said that the test subjects “seem to be too wrapped up in their own worries about what they should say or did say to see signals of others’ liking for them, which observers of the conversations see right away.”

It also makes sense that we would be cautious about how we think other people view us. While people tend to believe that they do things, like driving, better than everybody else, being more critical about how other people perceive us can serve as a shield against the risk of making ourselves too emotionally vulnerable too quickly.

Clark again explains, “We’re self-protectively pessimistic and do not want to assume the other likes us before we find out if that’s really true.”

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How can I use this?

The obvious and undoubtedly most useful takeaway is that now you know that conversation you had with the cutie you like probably went better than you thought it did. While this is reassuring, there are ways to make this effect work for you.

If you are speaking to somebody form a position of power, interviewing them for example, you might be able to reduce their inevitable concerns by asking follow-up questions or positively commenting on their statements. If you are being interviewed, know that your words matter more than your behavioral clues in helping people form their opinion of you.

The study also reminds us that everybody might benefit from being more direct. Telling somebody that you enjoyed spending time with them removes any doubt the other person might have. Following up on a conversation later is also a sure way to demonstrate that the other person didn’t repulse you during your first meeting. Think of all the relationships you could have had, if only the other person knew you liked them.

You never get a second chance at a first impression, but this study suggests we may be doing better than we think — especially since we put in the effort. That said, this research also reminds us that going the extra step in a conversation can make a great deal of difference and that everybody has some anxiety when it comes to how other people perceive them. So go ahead, have a chat with somebody you don’t know; it’ll go better than you think.

The data for this study is available online here for those of you who want to read it.


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