Worried people won’t like you? You’re likely more popular than you think

Research shows the ‘liking gap’ means you’re probably underestimating how well liked you are. Here’s why it matters, and what you can do to narrow the gap.

Think back to the last conversation you had with someone you don’t know well.

If you left feeling they didn’t like you, research shows you’re not the only one who thinks that way – and that you’re probably wrong.

According to the liking gap theory, there’s disparity between how much you think a new acquaintance likes you and how much they actually like you – and the research suggests most of us are programmed to vastly underestimate how much people like us.

“One clear and consistent tendency of the human brain is its predisposition towards the negative over the positive,” psychologist and director of the Sydney Couples Counselling Centre Dr Rowan Burckhardt says.

“It has been estimated that we have between 6000 and 60,000 thoughts per day and that approximately 80 per cent are negative.

“The reason for this negative bias is that the brain’s main job is to keep us alive, and it’s better off constantly detecting threats than simply enjoying life.”

Why is the liking gap a problem?

The authors of the research point out that conversations have the power to turn strangers into meaningful social connections, but feeling like we’ve made a bad first impression can stop this process in its tracks.

In fact, Dr Burckhardt says if it’s strong enough, the liking gap effect could even become social anxiety disorder.

“Social anxiety is the most common form of anxiety people experience and it’s where we fear the negative judgement or rejection from others,” he says.

“It reaches the point where it interferes with people’s lives so that it’s considered a disorder for 17 per cent of the population.”

How to narrow the liking gap

Just being aware of it is a good place to start – if you find yourself stressing about the bad impression you just made, remember that’s likely only your belief, not other people’s.

The following tips may also help:

Brush off awkward moments

If a casual chat with a new acquaintance does involve the odd awkward pause or conversational misstep, rest assured the other person won’t hold you responsible.

Research shows when these blips happen during small talk, people tend to blame themselves, not their conversation partner.

Don’t worry if you overshare

Feel embarrassed when you wind up sharing more deep and meaningful thoughts with a new acquaintance than you intended?

There’s no need to – research also shows we overestimate awkwardness and underestimate other people’s enjoyment of those kinds of conversations.

Remember, people want to hear from you

If you’ve lost touch with someone, or want to turn an acquaintance into a friend, but the liking gap is making you question whether or not to reach out, a recent study has good news – we significantly underestimate how much others appreciate being contacted.

“What we were finding anecdotally is that a lot of people wanted to reach out but hesitated to do so, in part because they didn’t think that it would be particularly valued,” study co-author Assistant Professor Lauren Min, from the University of Kansas, says.

“If you are considering getting in touch with a friend but hesitating because you’re unsure how it might be received, think about this research and take it as a green light to go ahead and reach out.”

Seek help if you’re socially anxious

Dr Burckhardt explains that while it’s important for someone with social anxiety disorder not to avoid social situations, as exposure tests fears and provides the chance to develop new beliefs, finding a therapist to explore the origins of this anxiety may help, too.

“In the therapy, the person can slowly become comfortable being themselves and experience the acceptance of the therapist which, in turn, helps them be themselves with others,” Dr Burkhardt says.

Read more on managing social awkwardness:

Written by Karen Fittall.