Under the Hood

Nervous About First Impressions? You May Underestimate How Much People Like You

Have you ever kicked yourself after a first date, a conversation with a stranger, or even a job interview? It may be over something you said or something you did, which seemingly made a less-than-favorable impression on the other person.

If so, here's some good news: Psychologists examined a phenomenon known as "the liking gap" and found the first impression we leave on someone is often a lot better than we believe it was.

The study titled "The Liking Gap in Conversations: Do People Like Us More Than We Think?" was recently published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Over the years, psychology research explored the human tendency to look at ourselves through rose-colored glasses. That is, we may convince ourselves we work harder than others or that we do not deserve blame when we fail in a certain situation. However, the new study has identified a strong exception to this rule. Turns out, we underestimate rather than overestimate when we are getting acquainted with someone unfamiliar to us.

"Our research suggests that accurately estimating how much a new conversation partner likes us — even though this a fundamental part of social life and something we have ample practice with — is a much more difficult task than we imagine," said Erica Boothby and Gus Cooney, postdoctoral researchers at Cornell University and Harvard University respectively.

This is known as the liking gap, which can be quite bad for our social life since it could stop us from developing new relationships. The researchers looked at various aspects of the liking gap in a series of studies.

In one study, participants were paired up with strangers to have 5-minute conversations and gauge their interest afterward. In most cases, people underestimated how much their conversation partner liked them and also missed behavioral signals which suggested interest and enjoyment.

"They seem to be too wrapped up in their own worries about what they should say or did say to see signals of others’ liking for them, which observers of the conservations see right away," said co-author Margaret S. Clark, a professor of psychology at Yale University.

"We critically monitor ourselves and regret not telling the joke more smoothly or worry about whether we sound as if we are bragging. We're self-protectively pessimistic and do not want to assume the other likes us before we find out if that's really true."

This pessimistic tendency around first impressions surprised the study authors, painting a stark contrast to our optimism in other domains and scenarios such as our intelligence levels, driving skills, the risk of negative outcomes like divorce, etc.

In further analysis, this tendency to underestimate was found to persist in even longer lengths of conversation. In one study involving first-year college dorm mates, the liking gap actually lasted for several months. It also occurred for both men and women equally, the researchers added.