In the quest for connection, whether through the lens of online dating or making new friends, the emphasis often veers towards showcasing ourselves. We curate profiles rich in hobbies, preferences, and personal quirks, from weekend paragliding adventures to our edgy Spotify playlist. The aim is almost always the same: paint a vibrant picture of who we are; a picture that often only reflects our good side.
Yet, a pivotal piece of the puzzle frequently remains neglected: the desire to truly understand our potential partners. This seemingly small oversight could be the secret sauce most of us have missing for better, more fulfilling relationships — romantic or otherwise.
Understanding vs. Being Understood
Juliana Schroeder, Associate Professor at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues have conducted a new study that highlights a fundamental truth: people crave to be known. This yearning permeates romantic endeavors, friendships, familial bonds, and even professional relationships.
Schroeder’s investigations, spanning a decade, were inspired by a curious observation in patient-physician interactions, dubbed the “empty vessel effect.” Schroeder previously found that patients who are in the greatest need of care tend to view their doctors as essentially little robots with little to no personal attributes or personal lives. This led to a broader inquiry into whether this phenomenon permeated other aspects of human relationships. Patients would rarely be able to recall personal facts about their doctors, such as their marital status. At the same time, the same patients wanted the clinic to hire doctors who display more patient-focused emotions.
You might quip that that’s what doctors are for. They get paid to treat people, not to chit-chat about their personal lives with patients. Yet the same people might complain their physicians are clinically cold when the going gets tough and they need urgent care. Ultimately, this research opened a can of worms into the nuances of social dynamics, leading to a path that exposes the innate self-centeredness in each of us.
“We wondered whether this is a more general phenomenon whereby people are attuned to what others know about them more than what they know about others,” Fishbach said in a press release.
The Illusion of Asymmetry
In a series of studies highlighted in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, scientists explored how well people think they understand someone close to them — a family member, partner, or friend — and how this perception influences their happiness in the relationship. Participants were asked to assess both how well they believed they knew the other person and how well they thought the other person knew them. They were also asked to rate their satisfaction with the relationship on a scale from 1 to 7.
This experiment highlighted a striking illusion: we often believe we understand others better than they understand us, a notion Schroeder refers to as the “illusion of asymmetric insight.” People tend to feel they are complex and unique, making them harder to understand by others, while assuming they can easily understand someone else with just a bit of personal information. We are quick to judge, after all.
In another related experiment, participants were given scenarios involving a forgotten name at a party, either forgetting someone’s name or having their name forgotten. Being forgotten by someone else had a much more negative impact on the relationship than forgetting someone’s name oneself.
This research suggests that feeling understood by others is a rare and highly valued aspect of relationships. People placed more importance on how well they felt known by the other person than on how well they actually knew the other person when it came to their relationship satisfaction. This was true regardless of their overall opinion of the relationship’s quality.
An online dating hack?
Schroeder and colleagues then analyzed profiles on dating platforms like Match.com and Coffee Meets Bagel. An underlying pattern emerged whereby most users focused on being appealing rather than expressing a genuine interest in getting to know potential partners. However, profiles that emphasized a desire to understand the other person were rated more favorably in a study involving 250 participants, suggesting that a shift towards expressing an interest in truly knowing someone could enhance online dating experiences.
“What they want to be doing is saying, ‘I really care about you, and I’m going to get to know you and be there for you and listen to you and be a great partner,” Schroeder says.
Interestingly, the desire to be known does not hold the same weight in every type of relationship. Parents, for instance, find satisfaction not in being understood by their children but in understanding them. This exception makes sense since parent-child relationships are very different from interpersonal relationships among adults.
“It’s the one relationship where it’s very clear the parent needs to be supporting the child,” Schroeder says.
The implications of the new findings extend even into the workplace, suggesting that feeling known can also contribute to overall job satisfaction. Knowing a colleague’s preferences and work habits could foster a more supportive and satisfying work environment.
The new findings appeared in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
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