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Here is a scenario: You and a new acquaintance (or perhaps even an old friendquaintance that you haven’t seen in a long time) are having a normal conversation, going back and forth about some topic, just shooting the breeze. The conversation has an agreeable tone. I am totally nailing this interaction, you think to yourself amid the nods and smiles. You part ways, satisfied. Hours to days later, a new thought creeps into your head. Ugh, I really shouldn’t have said that thing about the thing. You can’t stop replaying the conversation over and over, picking out moments where you sounded like a babbling baby. You ultimately land on the unfortunate conclusion that so-and-so thinks you’re a huge dummy who doesn’t know how to converse.
What you’ve experienced is the liking gap, a theory a group of researchers have that explains that people commonly underestimate how well they’re liked after interacting with another person. Researchers published the first study on the gap just a few years ago, in a September 2018 study published in Psychological Science. Gus Cooney, one of the study’s authors and an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told VICE he thinks the liking gap could be a somewhat functional behavior. “If you and I talk and I make some off-color joke, it probably makes functional sense that, afterwards, I think, Did that joke really offend Hannah?,” Cooney said. “I think the problem is that it’s a bit over reactive.” Or, as the study explains it, the liking gap exists because we can’t just ask people how much they like us after a conversation ends. We’re left to venture our own guesses, running back conversations and re-evaluating everything we said, wondering how they sounded to a person whose values and personality quirks we don’t yet know. And those guesses are often biased by an internal monologue that’s “remarkably self-critical and negative, especially with the added uncertainty of talking to someone new.”In simpler terms, the liking gap explains that many people experience the unpleasant ordeal of wondering whether someone hates them, post-normal conversation. As the researchers learned, people routinely underestimate how well-liked they are, even in situations where the person they’re talking with gives signals (smiling, hand gestures) that they’re digging the conversation. Because we’re too wrapped up in thinking about what we’re saying and how it sounds to notice those signals, the liking gap persists. What’s more interesting is that, as the study authors note, people tend to overestimate themselves in almost every other regard: driving ability, relationships, etc. In other words, we think we are great until we talk to someone else, at which point we think that we suck.
To find and demonstrate the liking gap, the researchers looked at several scenarios in which people were just getting to know each other: as strangers got acquainted in a lab, as college freshmen got to know their roommates, and as strangers in the general public got to know each other in a workshop. In each scenario, researchers asked each person how much they liked the person they talked with, and how much they thought their conversation partner liked them. Across the board, people ranked their “perceived liking” lower than they were actually liked. As Cooney said, it makes some sense for people to underestimate how well liked they are when interacting with someone new; we need that little, self-critical voice to keep us from wilding out and saying inappropriate things. But as the liking gap demonstrates, that voice isn’t so little and we tend to be overly critical of ourselves, to the point that we assume people who like us...don’t actually like us. The only people who seem to avoid this problem, the study showed, are those who don’t consider themselves to be shy. Does this explain confidence? Maybe or maybe not, but it certainly explains why certain people are seemingly navigating the world with ease, never tripped up in the debilitating thought that everyone they’ve ever met hates them. As a testament to the liking gap’s existence, Cooney brought up a subsequent study, published in Psychological Science in April 2021, that explores the liking gap in children over age five. The study found that there’s no liking gap in very young kids, but throughout childhood, the gap shows up and expands, basically in-line with the time that a kid starts to care about their reputation. “Really young children aren’t really thinking about whether another person likes them, they don’t care about the reputation they make,” Cooney said (how peaceful!). “But as that voice turns on that cares about reputation, the liking gap starts to appear.” All the existing studies on the liking gap focus on conversations between strangers or newly acquainted people, but as Cooney told VICE, it also makes sense for the liking gap to exist between people who haven't interacted in a long time. Our current situation—emerging from over a year of relative isolation and figuring out how to talk again—could certainly lead to liking gaps with old friends we haven’t seen or meaningfully talked with since 2019, especially if you had some sort of pandemic-related beef with those old friends. One notable comfort is that, in the case of the college roommates, researchers found that the liking gap diminishes with time. While you may feel uniquely disliked and stupid around new people—or just people you haven’t hung out with in years—it is scientifically demonstrated that those feelings won’t persist. As you get to know someone better and feel more confident in your interactions with them, the gap shrinks, and you no longer feel the need to second guess every little comment you made. And isn’t that nice? It’s almost like that is how...friendship works? Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.