As a social psychologist and professor of organizational behavior, I’ve given and attended my fair share of academic talks. So I know that the idea behind inviting a fellow researcher out for a campus visit is to get to know them and their research—and for them to get to know all the people in the host department and their research. To that end, speakers will generally spend all day before and after their talks in back-to-back, one-on-one meetings with the individual faculty members of a given department. You get escorted to an office, say hello, sit down, and converse for 30 minutes; then you get escorted to the next office, say hello, sit down, converse for another 30 minutes; and repeat. It’s basically academic speed dating, all day long.
It’s not surprising that these speed dating–style conversations can feel sort of awkward at the start. But it’s more surprising to learn that they ultimately turn out to be quite enjoyable. What we realize when we’ve gone through enough of these kinds of rapid-fire forced conversations is that no matter how much you might think you talked too much, or weren’t witty enough, or said something weird or wrong or stupid, on the whole, people walk away feeling good about the interaction and positively toward you.
This isn’t just a peculiarity of academic campus visits. The same goes for all kinds of professional interactions—whether it’s an informational interview, a job interview, a networking coffee, a meeting with coworkers or clients, or that quick chat with a colleague in the office kitchen. Anytime you walk away from a conversation and begin a postmortem analysis of everything you said wrong or how awkward you were, you’re probably being unnecessarily harsh on yourself. We regularly make better, less awkward impressions on other people than we think we do—and there’s research to prove it.
How We Know We’re Bad at Judging How Much People Like Us
We rarely get insight into what other people thought of us once we part ways after a conversation, so we rarely have the opportunity to have our worries assuaged about the negative impressions we think we’ve made. Luckily, we can thank my fellow psychologist Erica Boothby, currently a postdoctoral researcher at Wharton, along with her collaborators Gus Cooney, Gillian Sandstrom, and Margaret Clark, for this insight via their discovery of a phenomenon they call the “liking gap.”
These researchers used a simple method: They invited pairs of participants who didn’t know each other into the lab and instructed them to have a five-minute conversation. To make it easier for everyone, they didn’t just leave participants to their own devices. They gave participants a sheet of icebreaker questions such as, “Where are you from?” and, “What are your hobbies?” and told them to take turns asking one another these questions. This should have stacked the deck against the researchers’ predictions, since participants didn’t have to do many of the things that can make real-world conversations awkward, such as coming up with a topic to talk about or navigating awkward silences. So on the whole, participants should have felt pretty good about their conversational skills.
However, that’s not what the research team found when they had each participant go into a separate room to complete a post-conversation survey with questions about how much they liked the other person (e.g., “I would like to interact with the other participant again”; “I could see myself becoming friends with the other participant”) and how much they thought the other person liked them (e.g., “The other participant would like to interact with me again”; “The other person could see him/herself becoming friends with me”).
It turns out, for the average study participant, the person you just interacted with liked you more than you thought. The ratings participants provided of how much they liked their conversation partner were significantly higher—12.5% higher—than the ratings they provided of how much they thought their conversation partner liked them.
In follow-up studies, the researchers allowed participants to chat for as long as 45 minutes (and some did chat for that long), to see whether the liking gap persisted even for longer conversations. It turns out that it does. Whether you’re chatting with someone in line at the grocery store checkout for just a couple of minutes or trying to fill a full thirty minutes of professional banter with a colleague, the other person typically walks away from that conversation liking you more than you think.
These researchers also discovered a couple of interesting additional details about the effect. First, they found, not surprisingly, that people who are more shy display a larger liking gap—meaning they underestimated how much their conversation partner liked them even more than the average participant. So if you’re particularly anxious about socializing, you’re already doing much better than you think.
Second, they found that third-party observers who watched videos of pairs of participants interacting could actually tell how much the two individuals liked one another. It turns out that neutral observers are able to pick up on subtle cues two people send to one another indicating that they like each other, something participants themselves seem to miss. As the researchers explain, conversations are emotionally and cognitively demanding. When you’re an active part of the conversation, you’re focused on how you’re coming across and are busy planning what to say next. As a result, you may miss the signals your partner is sending you telling you they think you’re great. But to someone who’s just sitting back watching it happen, all those positive signals are unmistakable.
What the “Liking Gap” Means for You
The “liking gap” is important for understanding the influence we have on other people—and for realizing, as I argue in my book, You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion, and Why It Matters, that people see us, listen to us, and agree to do things for us more often than we realize.
A key takeaway from research on influence and persuasion is that people are more persuaded by people they like. In fact, Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, made this one of his six principles of persuasion: The Liking Principle. If someone we think is really cool and interesting says we should check out a new podcast they’re listening to, we’re more likely to go and check it out than if someone we don’t like as much says the same thing. That means that part of determining how much influence you have over other people is determining how much other people like you. And, as we’ve just seen, that’s something we’re not so great at. People like you more than you realize, which in turn means you have more influence than you realize.
One consequence of underestimating how much people like us is that we think people are going to be more resistant to hearing what we have to say than they actually are. We brace ourselves for a fight, obsess over exactly what to say, pile on the facts, and shout from the rooftops, when in reality, we could probably take it down a few notches.