People Probably Like You More Than You Think, Says Science

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

Kelly Gonsalves is the sex and relationships editor at mindbodygreen. Her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.

Photo by Studio Firma

We all know how important first impressions are. People will form an opinion about you within a tenth of a millisecond, studies show, and getting them to change their mind about those snap judgments can be frustratingly difficult. And frankly, just knowing how pivotal that first meeting is can actually make interacting with a new stranger all the more stressful and anxiety-inducing.

The good news? You're probably better at first impressions than you think you are. A new study published in the journal Psychological Science found people tend to underestimate how much someone they just met likes them. In one experiment, the researchers watched pairs of participants who'd never met before have a conversation and then allowed them to rate how much they liked their partner and how much they thought their partner liked them back. On average, people tended to think they liked the other person way more than the other person liked them. The researchers themselves, as observers, found they could tell from visible cues how much a person liked their partner (the researchers' observed liking matched up with the person's reported liking later), and yet the partner couldn't seem to come to the same conclusion from the same visible cues.

"They 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," said Margaret Clark, Ph.D., a Yale University psychology professor and one of the authors of the study, in a news release. "We're self-protectively pessimistic and do not want to assume the other likes us before we find out if that's really true."

Over the course of several experiments, participants continued to perceive their partner as liking them less than that person actually reported liking them. The researchers found this "liking gap" persisted even after longer conversations, after conversations in the real world (outside of a lab setting), and after several months had passed.

What's up with all the negativity here? Why do we seem to assume people like us way less than they actually do? The authors suggest many people may simply have a tendency to self-criticize as a sort of survival reflex.

"After people have conversations, their thoughts tend to be critical of their own social performance, and they then project these thoughts onto others and have doubts about how much others like them," the paper notes. "One of life's greatest fears is social evaluation. And so it makes sense that people are vigilant to any potential causes for embarrassment or social awkwardness. In addition, people call to mind their social flaws to fix for next time, people have access to their ideal selves to which their actual selves cannot live up, and people think their social awkwardness is on display more than it really is."

Clearly, there's a lot of unconscious self-criticism and abject fear that undergirds many of our social behaviors—and apparently they can even color our view of our relationships.

The next time you're about to meet someone new, take a deep breath. Try a calming exercise to get yourself into a positive mindset. After it's over, pay attention to what kind of emotions you're attaching to your evaluation of how the encounter went; if you catch yourself in a self-judgmental spiral, counter it with some self-validating affirmations.

And just remember: It probably went better than you think it did.

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