Worried about a bad impression? Study reveals we're more likable than we think

When making new acquaintances, people often underestimate how much they're liked
by Meghan Holohan / / Source: TODAY
Young woman covering her eyes with one hand
If you think you've made a bad first impression, you may be experiencing the "liking gap."Getty Images stock

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At a work happy hour, you start chatting with the department’s new employee. You gab for about 10 minutes before you’re interrupted and the conversation ends. She seems great, but you get the feeling she doesn’t like you. In fact, when you talk to her over the next few months, you worry she didn’t enjoy it.

And honestly, you could have told that story about your son a little better.

For many, this experience feels all too common. Some people might think they’re bad at first impressions or making small talk. A recent study published in Psychological Science looked at this phenomenon and discovered that people are more likable than they think.

“This was one of those things that seems so ubiquitous,” Gus Cooney, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University and one of the authors of the study, told TODAY. “I could never shake the idea that the other person doesn’t like me or didn’t enjoy the conversation. Is it me or does it happen to everybody else?”

Cooney and his colleague, Erica Boothby, designed three experiments to test how other people reacted conversations with new people. The first experiment was a five-minute ice breaker chat between strangers. After, the researchers asked how each how they thought it went. Consistently, people believed they were duds.

“Most people think their partner likes them less,” Cooney explained.

The next experiment involved two people talking for 45 minutes and then assessing what the other thought of them. Again, people believed they were unlikable.

“We have this unique perspective of our own faults and once we think of them and they are in our heads, we project it onto others,” Cooney said.

'Liking gap'

This difference, what the researchers call the "liking gap," lingers. For almost a year, they looked at how freshman dorm roommates felt about each other. Months after a first meeting, roommates often perceived the other did not care for them as much.

“One of the surprising things to me was potentially how long lasting it was,” he said. “For many many months they were underestimating how much their roommates and suite-mates would like them.”

Psychologist Ann Kearney-Cooke, who did not participate in the study, hopes the study helps people feel more confident.

“One thing that surprised me is how, in general, people think that other people didn’t enjoy the conversation,” the director of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute told TODAY. “I want people to realize that you are not alone. That most people feel this and that in fact their perceptions are not right.”

Cooney agreed:

“Conversations with new people are just some of the most difficult conversations we have,” he said. “We should be aware that that voice in our heads will not be so accurate and that people might like us more than we think.”

In other words, it's good to be suspicious about the doubting, self-conscious inner voice, said Cooney.

When patients are worried about awkward interactions, Kearney-Cooke reminds them that by focusing on the negative, they're only seeing incomplete pieces of the conversation.

"Sometimes you can’t trust your thoughts. Maybe you are not that awkward," she said. "When you see the whole picture, the people you are talking to are smiling or laughing and curious."

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