Ever wanted to reach out to one of your friends, but then decided against it at the last minute? Perhaps that was unwise. A new study suggests that your friends, even if they’re not very close, might appreciate the unexpected call, text, or email more than you think.
For how social humans are, and how dependent we are on one another, it’s surprising how much we misjudge others and our relationships with them. It’s not all bad — oftentimes, things are better than we think they are. For instance, when we’re considering reaching out to say hi to an old friend, we may feel a bit strange reaching out to someone out of the blue.
“People are fundamentally social beings and enjoy connecting with others,” the authors of the new study write. “Sometimes, people reach out to others—whether simply to check-in on how others are doing with brief messages or to show that they are thinking of others by sending small gifts to them. Yet, despite the importance and enjoyment of social connection, do people accurately understand how much other people value being reached out to by someone in their social circle?
The study, led by Peggy Liu of the University of Pittsburgh, conducted a series of studies on 5,900 participants, analyzing how good people are at estimating how people will react when they reach out.
In one experiment, for instance, half of the participants were asked to recall when they reached out to someone for no particular reason after a long period of not interacting with them. Meanwhile, the other half were asked to recall when someone reached out to them in similar circumstances. The participants were then asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how much either themselves or the other person enjoyed, appreciated, felt grateful, thankful, or pleased by the contact. People who were reached out to appreciated the gesture much more than the people who reached out thought the gesture would be appreciated — which researchers assess as a “a robust underestimation of how much other people appreciate being reached out to.”
In the second experiment, the participants sent out either a short note or a note and a gift to one of their friends. Like in the previous one, participants rated the extent to which they thought the recipient would appreciate the contact, feel grateful for it, and feel pleased by it on a scale of 1 to 7.
All throughout, those who initiated the communication significantly underestimated how much the recipients appreciated being reached out to — even if it’s just with a note.
“We found that people receiving the communication placed greater focus than those initiating the communication on the surprise element, and this heightened focus on surprise was associated with higher appreciation,” said Liu. We also found that people underestimated others’ appreciation to a greater extent when the communication was more surprising, as opposed to part of a regular communication pattern, or the social ties between the two participants were weak.
The findings could have important implications for many of us. Our busy lives often get in the way of our social relationships, and presumably, many of us would like to get in touch with the people we know, but feel weird about doing it for no particular reason. The findings suggest our hesitations may be unnecessary.
“Altogether, this research thus identifies when and why we underestimate how much other people appreciate us reaching out to them, implicating a heightened focus on feelings of surprise as one underlying explanation,” the researchers conclude.
Especially after the pandemic lockdowns, when so many people stayed isolated, the findings could be important. The study authors said they’ll heed the findings too.
“I sometimes pause before reaching out to people from my pre-pandemic social circle for a variety of reasons. When that happens, I think about these research findings and remind myself that other people may also want to reach out to me and hesitate for the same reasons,” Liu said. “I then tell myself that I would appreciate it so much if they reached out to me and that there is no reason to think they would not similarly appreciate my reaching out to them.”
The study was published in APA Psych Net.
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