Why you make better first impressions than you think
We often cringe after conversations, convinced we made a bad impression. But research says we may be more likeable than we think.
After meeting someone for the first time, do you see yourself as a glittering conversationalist, a kind of Wildean wit whose bons mots sparkled and delighted? Or do you find yourself wincing at every possible faux pas, imagining all the ways you may have bored or offended?
If you identify with the former description, you are in the minority. Multiple studies show the average person takes a rather low opinion of their conversational abilities, and the social impressions they leave.
In most situations, we are often much more pleasant company than we imagine, yet we forget all the cues of friendliness towards us, and think we were irritating or dull. It is as if we are remembering a completely different conversation from the one that actually happened.
The mismatch between our perceptions of our social performance, and others’ opinions of us, is known as the “liking gap”, and it may limit our ability to form connections in our personal lives, and also stand in the way of mutually beneficial collaborations at work. Like many of our brain’s biases, the liking gap can be hard to correct – but the latest research suggests there are ways to overcome this common form of social anxiety.
The initial investigation into the liking gap was inspired by the personal experience of Erica Boothby and Gus Cooney, who are both psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania, US. Boothby was talking to a new acquaintance one day, as Cooney sat close-by. To Cooney, it was obvious that the conversation had gone well – yet Boothby was distinctly worried about the impression she had given.
Suspecting this was a common phenomenon, they set about devising a series of experiments to test people’s impressions of their encounters with others.
In the first study, they paired up students for five-minute ice-breaking conversations, then asked them to rate how much they liked them, with questions on whether they wanted to talk to the person again, or whether they imagined being friends. Each participant was also asked to guess how the other person would answer those questions: whether they would want to meet again or would like to be friends.
As suspected, they found that most participant’s estimations of their partner’s responses were consistently – and unrealistically – pessimistic. In general, each person had made a better impression than they thought they had – offering the first evidence for the liking gap.
To be sure it was a common phenomenon, the team replicated the experiment among general members of the public attending various personal development workshops. Time and again, they found a liking gap in the participants’ responses.
One study examined the impressions of university dorm-mates, with questionnaires in September – when they first met – and follow-ups in October, December, February and May. The researchers found the liking gap, firmly established on the first meeting, persisted for several months, until the roomies had eventually formed a more stable relationship with more accurate judgements of each other’s feelings. “It lasted for the better part of a year,” says Cooney.