What goes through your mind when you’re meeting new people? Maybe you’re centered and at peace with yourself, secure that you have value to bring to the conversation. Or perhaps, you’re lasering into an almost imperceptible social guffaw you committed, convinced that your conversation partner would rather be undergoing surgery of the Achilles tendon from a shoddy doctor than talking to you.
This type of self-critical thinking explains what’s called the “liking gap.” The liking gap describes how we systematically underestimate how much other people like us. In a study by Dr. Erica J. Boothby, at Cornell University, and her colleagues, the researchers asked people how much they liked one another after they interacted, across a variety of contexts: in the lab, in a college dorm, at a professional development workshop. It turns out that across all of these contexts, people’s ratings of the degree to which they thought they were liked was less than the degree to which they were actually liked. This was true even for people with high self-esteem.
When independent observers were asked to watch these interactions and report on how much it seemed that the interaction partners liked one another, they were able to make accurate assessments that correlated with how much the two actually liked one another. And yet, these ratings by independent judges were unrelated to people’s perceptions of how much their interaction partner liked them. What this means is that other people are demonstrating cues that they like us, cues that are clear to others around us, but not to ourselves.
But why might this be? Why are we oblivious to the ways in which people are showing their interest in us? The answer to this question lies in some sage advice that I got from my high school friend who was strikingly cooler and more confident than me. She said, “everybody is so self-conscious about themselves that if you’re weird, they don’t even notice.” This advice from a high-schooler before her time holds weight in the research. Our interpretation of an interaction is determined more by our self-consciousness than what is actually going on.
After two interaction partners finished conversing, the researchers asked each person to write down prominent thoughts they had during the interaction and the valence of the thoughts, or how positive or negative these thoughts were. Maybe they were thinking—”wow, we’re really getting along” (positive) or else “wow, I’m so hideously awkward” (negative).
The researchers found that when people had more negative thoughts about the interaction, they were more likely to underestimate how much they were liked. In other words, people presupposed that their thoughts were the truth—that if they thought their interaction partner was judging them, their interaction partner was actually judging them, when in fact, these self-critical thoughts were distorting their perception of the truth.
Dr. Boothby’s study is a soothing reality check for those of us who struggle with being self-critical. People may be less judgmental toward us than we are toward ourselves. The sense that we are disliked can feel so real, and yet, research assures us that this sense is often inaccurate and, furthermore, that the more critical we are of ourselves, the more we are misrepresenting reality. Thoughts lie, and we are liked more than we know.