Actually, Everyone Is Thinking About You

If this horrifies you, keep in mind people probably like you a lot more than you think.
November 4, 2021, 3:30pm
Two best friends telling secrets lying in the grass.
Westend61 for Getty.

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, a woman in her 70s shared a life lesson in the chapter “Nobody’s Thinking About You.” As we get older, she said, we not only stop caring about what others think about us, but we eventually “realize this liberating truth—nobody was ever thinking about you, anyhow.”

“They aren’t. They weren’t. They never were,” Gilbert wrote. “People are mostly just thinking about themselves. People don't have time to worry about what you’re doing, or how well you’re doing it, because they’re all caught up in their own dramas.”

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People are certainly preoccupied by their own thoughts, but is it true that we coast through life anonymously, not inhabiting other people’s minds the way they do ours? Not entirely, according to a new study published at the end of October in Journal of Experimental Psychology: It turns out people are thinking about you.

Across eight experiments involving over 2,100 people, social psychologists Gus Cooney, Erica Boothby, and Mariana Lee found that we regularly underestimate the frequency with which others are thinking about us. People assume it’s one-sided when they dwell on social interactions and conversations; in fact, others are thinking about them, too. The researchers called this gap between how much others actually think about us and how little we assume they do the “thought gap.”

We spend about half of our waking lives communicating, often through conversation. After we talk to our friends, family, therapists, or strangers we bump into, we think about those conversations later on. We replay what was said, chew over advice, chuckle at something we found funny, or mull over any critical thoughts. The thought gap reveals how people generally don’t realize that their conversation partners are doing the exact same thing.

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Cooney, a professor at The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, has long been interested in how conversations can reveal our metaperceptions, or how we believe others see us. How do we think about ourselves when we talk to others? How do we remember those conversations, and think about others and ourselves later on? His and others’ research, including this latest study, highlight how these metaperceptions can be biased, and why that matters: These biases can drive our behaviors and also impact our relationships with others. 

The thought gap doesn’t occur for every single conversation and relationship. There are some cases or relationships where the amount of mental space taken up in a person's mind isn’t reciprocated. “Maybe your mom really does think about you more than you think about her, sadly,” Cooney said.

But on average, the researchers found the thought gap remarkably stable. The experiments ranged across all kinds of conversations and relationships: students in dining halls, strangers in the lab, pairs of friends. From mindless chit chat to arguments, the study found that people walked away from conversations thinking about the person they talked to, but assuming the other person wasn’t doing the same. 

Why don’t we realize we are on others’ minds? Cooney said the most likely explanation is that our own thoughts are more available. To state the obvious, we know our own thoughts better than the thoughts of others. They play in a constant loop, whereas other people's thoughts are a mystery, locked away in someone else’s consciousness. 

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When we talk to others, we get a direct connection to their inner monologues along with nonverbal cues as to what a person is thinking, like tone or body language. Once talking with someone is over, all those signals are cut off. “This is a significant psychological transition, as people go from being intimately connected with another person’s thoughts to being alone with their own thoughts,” the authors wrote. Then a “gulf widens” between your own thoughts, and the thoughts of another. 

In one experiment, the researchers looked at the thought gap over time. As the hours went on, the thought gap got bigger and bigger; people assumed others thought of them less and less. Cooney thinks it’s because they still had the same amount of access to their own thoughts, but became more uncertain about another’s. 

Individual differences could impact how much of a thought gap people have, or how it makes them feel. Cooney wants to do more work on how the thought gap works in people with social anxiety, or in people with differences in age, race, or profession.

But overall, the thought gap meshes with research that suggests that people are more aware of their own thoughts. Juliana Schroeder, a behavioral scientist at University of California, Berkeley said it’s referred to as the “lesser minds problem”: When our own thoughts feel more salient, we pay more attention to them. The result is that people can end up perceiving other minds as dimmer than our own. 

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“Though it may be quite easy to think about others' thoughts, feelings, or other mental states, the mind attributed to others may be systematically lacking in complexity, depth, and intensity,” Schroeder and her colleagues wrote, because the “minds of others are inherently invisible  compared to one's own.”

In a book chapter from 2014, Schroeder and her colleagues reflected on how in modern life, physical distance can be easily overcome through travel or technology, but “the greatest  voyage in  modern life is not to move from one place to another but rather to be  able to move from one mind to another.” 

Humans are remarkably suited to do this, they noted. We have the “unprecedented ability to reason about the minds of others; to think about others’ beliefs, attitudes, and  intentions; or to monitor others’ reputations and remember who knows what within a group.” But even with all those skills, biases creep in, and prevent us from perceiving totally correctly.

The thought gap is not the only way we misinterpret the thoughts and feelings of others in relation to ourselves. In a 2017 paper on the “invisibility cloak illusion,” researchers found that when in places like waiting rooms, cafes, or the subway, we regularly look around at other people, but don’t realize how much others are doing the same to us. We believe that we watch others more than we are watched. (The “spotlight effect,” on the other hand, is when people in an experiment were made to wear a Barry Manilow T-shirt in public, and reported that 50% people had noticed when only 25% actually did.)

It seems that if we’re self-conscious about something, we think that others notice it more than they actually do. But going about our everyday lives, we think others are watching us less than we’re observing them. “Left to their own devices, however, with little evidence that others are watching, people instead feel relatively invisible, like they are the ones peering out at the world, not realizing that they, too, are the object of others’ attention,” the authors wrote. 

Another bias that Cooney and Boothby have done work on is the called the “liking gap,” or how people underestimate how much people liked them after talking to them. The “liking gap” has been shown across a number of different studies now, in short and long conversations, in men and women, and in group as well as one-on-one conversations. Researchers have found the liking gap in kids as young as five (but not four). 

Why are we biased to think that others don’t like us very much? Just like the thought gap, it’s hard for us to know what other people are thinking about—positive or negative—after we leave them. It’s easy to compare the social interaction to some ideal inner version of ourselves and be critical of it.

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Adam Mastroianni, a postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School who has done work on the liking gap, said we might fixate on our social shortcomings in an attempt to fix them. “We obsess over the joke that didn’t land, the name we forgot, the careless thing we shouldn’t have said, and that makes us funnier, more attentive, and more careful the next time around,” he said. “But it also fills our heads with negative thoughts about ourselves, leading us to assume the worst about what others think of us––in this case, that they don’t think of us much at all, and when they do, it ain’t good.”

Taken together, the thought and liking gap are interesting because people have other biases that work in the other direction, towards illusory superiority: The Lake Wobegon effect is when people think they are above average on most traits. The optimism bias is when we believe that though other people get divorced or into car crashes, it won’t happen to us. 

The opposite is happening with the liking and thought gaps. Wouter Wolf, an assistant professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who studies social relationships, said it might be because of the addition of uncertainty. “Although humans are actually relatively gifted in understanding the mental states of others, compared to other animal species, we are also the only species who hide our mental states about our partners for reasons other than competition”—like politeness, Wolf said. 

This uncertainty takes place in interactions that are also very important. Our social interactions, and how others evaluate us, helps us to belong to different groups and achieve other kinds of successes, whether romantic or professional. There could be an evolutionary benefit to underestimating how much people think about us or like us, Wolf said, because it could motivate us to continue engaging in prosocial behavior towards others. If we were prone to overestimating, it could backfire, if it meant we didn’t invest further time into a relationship. 

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All of these conflicting biases can lead to pessimism about what others think about us: The conception that others barely think of us at all, and when they do, it’s negative. This pessimism can have consequences, Cooney said. It can influence our beliefs about how much we like talking to strangers, or how willing we are to have honest conversations about tough topics.  

The last time Cooney had an argument, he said it felt like he was the only one who was churning it over, replaying each point of view, reliving the fight. “For some reason, we think others have just gone on with their day,” he said. Remembering that’s not true could start difficult conversations on better footing. 

The thought gap might also influence feelings of loneliness and social isolation. “One common socially anxious thought is ‘Nobody cares about me, nobody notices me, nobody thinks I’m important.’ Those thoughts may arise out of the thought gap, and learning about it may dispel them,” Mastroianni said. 

Misperceptions can make us believe that others are thinking less of us, liking us less, than they actually do. “If you underestimate how often you pop into someone’s head, you might not realize how much they care about you,” Mastroianni said. “Part of what interests me is simply thinking about how many relationships must falter or fail because of misunderstandings like these.”

When the Twitter account Neuroskeptic posted the abstract of the thought gap paper, many responded by expressing anxiety. “I never want to speak to anyone again,” one person tweeted. “Anxiety Pro Plus activated,” another replied. 

If it alarms you to realize that you’re on the minds of others, pairing it with knowledge of the liking gap can make it less nerve-wracking to imagine that others are often thinking of you. We might be assuming, via the liking gap, that those thoughts are bad. That’s probably not true, though. 

“Not only are we in people’s thoughts more than we expect, but those thoughts are also likely to be more positive than we expect,” Mastroianni said.

Cooney said that, generally speaking, the thoughts of the people in the study were positive. And participants found it pleasantly surprising to hear that others were still thinking about them, just as they were. “In the end, people like us more and think about us more than we think,” Cooney said. This is not a thought that should inspire a sinking feeling.

During a pandemic, it can be a solace to know we are inhabitants in the minds of others, even when we are apart. Mastroianni said he has some friends who he only gets to see rarely, and so he’ll often think about all the things he wants to tell them, or ask them, or activities they might do together. “When I realized they might be having all the same thoughts about me, it took my breath away!” he said. 

During the past two years, Cooney said, he dwelled on thoughts about past vacations and outings with friends. If he had a phone call with a friend or family member, it meant a lot to him. 

“Knowing about the thought gap makes me feel a little bit less alone in those thoughts I was having, knowing that the other person, even after they got off the line, was probably doing the same thing about me,” he said. “We were worlds away sometimes, but we were both thinking about each other. That's been a comforting thought for me.”

Follow Shayla Love on Twitter.