The Liking Gap

The Liking Gap 

Striking up a conversation with someone you don’t know is an occurrence that most of us regularly do, perhaps even every day. A new colleague you’ve just met at work for the first time. A neighbour who has just recently moved into your street. Or even just the person sitting next to you when you are waiting for the bus or train.

But when your initial introductory conversation has finished, and you have continued along your way do you often stop to wonder what they thought of you, and the conversation you’ve just had? Maybe you think to yourself “Did I overstep my bounds just then?” or “Did I talk too much?” or even “Did they think I was boring?”.

Judging your conversation

The anxieties and uncertainties which can arise after having a conversation with someone you don’t know haven’t been readily studied before. But now some new research published recently has explored whether people can make an accurate assessment of what people thought of them.

In other words, does your judgment of how you behave during a conversation with a stranger match up with their actual perception? Or is there a mismatch?

A new type of perceptual bias.

Their paper describes multiple experiments to explore this question, both in the lab and in more real-world settings. And they revealed that there is indeed a mismatch. More specifically they found, across all their studies, that, after an introductory conversation, people are liked by the other person more than they think they are. In other words, people systematically underestimate how much their conversation partners liked them and enjoyed their company.

They called this mismatch the liking gap – to reflect the fact that other people like us more than we think they do.

Your inner critic

What’s more, they found that this liking gap persisted regardless of whether the introductory conversion was over a short, medium or longer period. Meaning that it isn’t necessarily anything to do with the duration of the conversation.

Also, the bias suggests that people are more likely to be negative about their conversation, than about other people’s conversation. The authors suggest that each of us has an inner critic inside our brain who is constantly monitoring our social conversations, perhaps to continually strive to do better next time.

However, the downside to this is that people seem to have a deliberate inbuilt pessimism, or fear of embarrassment, about their own conversational abilities – something that is at odds with some other biases of human perception and behavior which have been previously described in the literature and which suggest that people often see themselves and their lives through rose tinted glasses – otherwise known as the optimism bias.

It’s just inside your head.

Another possible reason for why people exhibit this liking gap is because they are not only evaluating the external circumstances of the conversation, such as what they said and how the other person responded, but also they are taking into account the emotional insecurities and self-conscious feelings inside their head, which are not necessarily visible to the listener.

In the words of the authors of the paper “In people’s minds, they are stammering and nervous and searching for the right words, but others cannot see the inside of their minds; rather, they are paying attention to overt behaviour.” 

More social than you realise. 

What’s more, when people are making these critical judgements, they often forget that they have actually been fine-tuning their social behaviours over their whole lifetime, so that it is acceptable and even likeable. They have learnt that they should be gazing, laughing, smiling, pausing, gesturing, and take turns in ways that fit the conversation and synchronising these overt behaviours with their conversation partner.  But because this fine-tuning is typically done at a subconscious level, we often don’t think very much about how well-honed our social and conversational behaviours are.

Don’t be so hard on yourself.

This new liking gap bias, therefore, can be added to the long list of biases which are known to influence people’s behaviour and perception, and that are useful to know about when you go about your daily life.

And next time you find yourself evaluating a conversation you’ve just had with someone unfamiliar, don’t be so hard on yourself.



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