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Strangers like us much more than we realise

  • Date

    Tue 9 Oct 18

Two women talking

Strangers generally like us much more than we think - so people shouldn’t worry so much about striking up a conversation with someone new.

New research has revealed that when talking to new people we are our own worst critics, and consistently underestimate how much our conversation partners enjoy our company.

Dr Gillian Sandstrom, from our Department of Psychology, worked with academics from Cornell, Harvard and Yale universities to look at the judgements we make about ourselves when meeting someone new, and whether those judgements are accurate or reflect our own insecurities. Their findings have been published in Psychological Science.

They found people are very pessimistic about their own conversational ability and before a conversation predict the other person will be more interesting than them. These feelings are strengthened after the conversation.

This ‘liking gap’ emerges in conversations of varying lengths, and regardless of how shy a person is. Participants in five studies included students in laboratory conditions, and the wider public in a more natural environment. Researchers also tracked flatmates over the course of a year, as they got to know each other, and found the liking gap can persist for many months.

Dr Sandstrom said: “Conversations have the power to turn strangers into friends, coffee dates into marriages and job interviews into a career. But conversations can be intimidating and make us very anxious and fearful of social rejection. Part of what makes conversations difficult is that people don’t know what others really think of them, so use their own thoughts as a substitute. But these tend to be more negative than reality. The result is people chronically underestimate how much others like them and enjoy their company.

“This liking gap exists not because people fail to signal they like each other – in fact, the signals are right there for all to see – but because people are too focused on their own self-critical thoughts to notice.

“Conversations are a great source of happiness in our lives, but even more than we realise it seems, as others like us more than we know.”