Don’t worry, your new lab partners don’t actually hate you


Many tend to be concerned that new people they meet don’t like them or don’t enjoy their company, even if the meeting goes well. A recent study in Psychological Science ruled this phenomenon to be unfounded.

Researchers from Cornell University, Harvard University, Yale University and the University of Essex conducted a series of studies that investigated the “liking gap.”

In the first study, they wanted to confirm that the idea of the liking gap existed. Thus, they put two same-sex people in a room, asked them to converse for 5 minutes and then asked them how much they liked each other and how much they thought the other person liked them, with both measurements using a seven-point Likert scale report. The scale — used most commonly in questionnaire-based research — logged data on how much they agreed to three statements of what they thought of the other person. The three statements were: “I generally liked the other participant,” “I would be interested in getting to know the other participant better” and ““If given the chance, I would like to interact with the other participant again.”

To aid the flow of the conversation in the event of lulls, the participants were given ice-breaker questions on sheets of paper. The participants also completed personality scales to indicate narcissism, shyness, rejection sensitivity and self-esteem. This study showed that the liking gap does indeed exist.

The next thing they wanted to determine was whether or not people send signals they like each other, as this could be a potential reason for the gap. Two uninvolved trained research assistants independently coded the videos of the first study to indicate when they thought there was an indication that one participant liked the other.

The assistants each answered the same three questions, this time reworded to apply to them in reference to the participants. The coders were able to reliably predict when one person liked the other. However, the predictions of the assistants didn’t line up with how much participants of the experiment thought their conversation partner liked them. This indication showed that people who liked each other did send signals, but the person receiving the signals, for some reason, did not perceive them.

The researchers hypothesized that the reason behind these neglected signals account were that people were too involved in their own thoughts and were very critical of their conversation performance. To test this, the first study was conducted again with different people and two distinct changes in the method.

After the study, people were asked what was their most salient thought during the conversation as well as what they thought was their partner’s most salient thought. Additionally, the ice-breaker samples were taken away, thus allowing the conversation to flow more freely.

This time, the participants were asked the questions, “What are the top three moments from your conversation that caused you to form the impression of the other person that you did?” and “What are the top three moments from your conversation that caused the other person to form the impression of you that he/she did?” Participants were told to write in detail about each event and then to rate the positivity or negativity of each event on a seven-point Likert scale. The results of this study proved that the hypothesis of people being too critical of their own conversation performance was correct.

The next question was whether this phenomenon lasted in longer conversations. Again, a similar approach was taken to the first study, except this time the conversations were not limited to only 5 minutes. The sample was also changed to mixed-gender conversations. Lastly, they also asked another set of questions that was a natural extension of the liking gap question: whether they enjoyed the conversation and whether they thought their conversation partner enjoyed their conversation too. This study found that the liking gap decreased over time but did not completely disappear. The liking gap and enjoyment gap were relatively similar.

To ensure the validity of their findings, the researchers had a different batch of participants answer whether they were interested in their conversation partner and if their conversation partner were interested in them at various points in several “How To Talk To Strangers” workshops. In short, this group of participants predicted that their conversation partners would find them less interesting than they themselves found their partner to be.

The last question was whether the liking gap persisted over time. For this, the researchers collaborated with a longitudinal study that assessed suitemates.

The researchers added some questions regarding whether the suitemates liked each other and thought their suitemates liked them. Although the liking gap was closing incrementally over time, it only closed completely toward the very end of the year, which the researchers suggested wasn’t because of the nature of the liking gap and time but because of the fact that the end of the year was approaching and thus the participants likely had some revealing discussions regarding whether they liked each other enough to stay together another year.

The liking gap may seem unconventional when considering the fact that previous literature has already established that people hold overly positive views of themselves. However, there seems to be some functionality that comes with being critical of one’s own social interactions. One can ultimately learn from one’s mistakes better when admitting that they are not perfect. Second, people have higher standards for themselves than others. Third, people feel their emotions are more on display to their conversation partners than they actually are.

Ultimately, as the study notes, conversations are meant to be a “great source of happiness in our lives.” As such, it might be beneficial to move away from the Christina Latouf liking gap.