Every time we manage to make a good impression with someone new, most of us can’t help but feel like Sally Field in her famous Oscars acceptance speech: “You like me! Right now, you like me!” First impressions are nerve-racking social experiences everyone undergoes on a regular basis, so the relief when it actually goes well is immense.
Whether it’s a job interview, first date, or introduction between friends, your mind can start reeling with anxiety the second you’ve stopped chatting. According to a new study, however, we should all be cutting ourselves a lot more slack. Psychologists from Harvard University, Cornell University, University of Essex in England, and Yale University co-authored the research published in the September 2018 issue of Psychological Science. In it, they observed the interactions between first-year college students getting to know their dorm mates and other students, faculty members getting acquainted in their laboratories, and strangers from the general public partaking in a personal development workshop.
After surveying those who took part in the study, they found that most of the participants believed they came off much worse than their conversation partners actually felt. The same rang true for all personality types, not just those who are naturally anxious or shy. While speaking with Time, Harvard psychiatrist and co-author of the study Gus Cooney explained: “We don’t know what other people are thinking, and so we substitute our own thoughts about ourselves for what other people think. We’re basically projecting what we think of our own performance, and assume that’s what other people think of us.”
The researchers call this the “liking gap,” defining it as people’s systematic underestimation of how much conversation partners actually liked interacting with them. Cooney says this is the “little voice” in our head that starts whispering to us as soon as we end an interaction. Although the study doesn’t offer a straightforward solution for not falling into the “liking gap,” just knowing it exists for pretty much all of us can help overcome those negative thoughts. Simply put, Cooney and the research suggests we remain “suspicious of this voice and its accuracy.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Chances are you won’t be able to turn those anxieties off like flipping a switch just because you know they exist. But it is comforting to know how common it is, and hopefully that will encourage us all to give ourselves some more wiggle room when it comes to our self-esteem.