If you’ve ever left a conversation feeling like you’ve completely ruined the impression you aimed to make or have been haunted by the possibility that your joke didn’t land, then you’re most definitely not alone. And apparently, you’re also quite mistaken. While first-time conversations can be daunting, and the fear of being judged or disliked is a real one, it turns out that we’re all a lot harder on ourselves than we should be. In the sphere of first impressions, a new study has found that there’s a ‘liking gap’ between how we deem our conversations to have worked towards creating a positive first impression of us against the impression actually formed—in other words, people like us way more than we think they do. And this gap could be preventing us from forming deeper relationships.
Over the course of five studies, researchers from Yale, Harvard, Essex and Cornell set out to prove that not only does this gap exist, but it can prevail for a long time, ranging from a few hours to a few months, which just goes to show that we truly are our own worst enemies.
In the first study, 34 participants were paired up and made to follow a guided interaction wherein the questions were prepared and given to them beforehand. Afterwards, they had to complete a personality test and conversation assessment and elaborate on how they felt about their partner as well as their inference on how their partner felt about them. An analysis of the results showed that participants significantly underestimated how their partners felt about them, with the widest gap being for those who were the ‘shyest’ of the lot.
The next study sought to explore reasons for why this gap exists and the role of negative thoughts as one. For this, participants were made to interact, again in pairs, but this time there was no guidance given regarding the topic of discussion; they were given a free hand in exploring whatever conversation for the span of five minutes. Later, they were asked what was going through their minds during the conversation and the majority reported that most of their thoughts were of a self-critical nature. In what may seem familiar to some, people were mostly examining themselves throughout the interaction, and felt that their partner had more negative thoughts about them than they did about the other.
The researchers claimed that people were so caught up in what they believed to have gone wrong that they failed to notice the signs from their partner that indicated they liked them.
This research goes against the notion that we view ourselves more positively than we do others; while we may believe ourselves to be top notch in some spheres (don't act like you don't think you're the best driver on the road), the area we struggle to remain optimistic about ourselves in is social interactions.
“The liking gap works very differently. When it comes to social interaction and conversation, people are often hesitant, uncertain about the impression they’re leaving on others, and overly critical of their own performance,” said Boothby and Cooney, two researchers that were part of the study. “In light of people’s vast optimism in other domains, people’s pessimism about their conversations is surprising.”
When they tested the hypothesis in the real world, they found that the gap remained for quite a period—a couple of months for college roommates, which just goes to show that our tendency for undermining ourselves doesn’t go away even with prolonged interaction.
The main takeaway from this would be to probably just stop over-examining every single aspect of a conversation, and instead pay attention to actual conversation cues we’re receiving from others, because whether it’s a business meeting, a date or a potential new friend, we’re more likely to widen our network if we sometimes just assume the best.