More Than You Suppose, People Like You

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It’s a big lesson of psychological science: Most of us exhibit a self-serving bias. On most subjective, socially desirable dimensions we see ourselves as better than average—as better than 90 percent of drivers, as more moral than most others, as better able to get along with others. When good things happen we accept credit, while we attribute our failures and bad deeds to external factors—to bad breaks or a situation beyond our control.

In kindred research, more than a thousand studies show how a positive thinking bias produces illusory optimism. Unrealistic optimism is evident when, for example, most students perceive themselves are far more likely than their average classmate to attend graduate school, get a high-paying job, and own a nice home, while they see themselves as much less likely to suffer a heart attack, get cancer, or be divorced.

The powers and perils of our self-serving pride and Pollyannaish optimism are a profound truth. But as a saying popularized by physicist Niels Bohr reminds us, “The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” So now for the rest of the story.

If you and I tend to overestimate our strengths and our potentials, we also tend to underestimate the good impressions we make when meeting others. In six new studies of more than 2000 university students, University of Toronto psychologists Norhan Elsaadawy and Erika Carlson found that “most people tend to underestimate how positively they are seen by the individuals they know well and by individuals they have just met.”

That happy finding confirms a 2018 report by Cornell University researcher Erica Boothby and her colleagues. After meeting and interacting with someone, “People systematically underestimated how much their conversation partners liked them and enjoyed their company.” This was true for strangers meeting in the laboratory, first-year undergraduates meeting their dorm mates, and adults getting to know one another in a workshop. After all such get-acquainted conversations, people “are liked more than they know.”

Elsaadawy and Carlson surmise that we underestimate the impressions we make because we, more than our conversation partners, focus on our blunders and imperfections. We’re painfully aware of what others hardly notice—our stumbling words, our nervousness, our talking too much or too little, even our bad hair that day.

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Our acute self-consciousness of our gaffes, shortcomings, and blemishes was amusingly evident in one of psychology’s elegantly simple and life-relevant experiments. At Cornell University, Thomas Gilovich and his co-researchers asked participants to wear an embarrassing T-shirt (of 1970s crooner Barry Manilow) before completing some questionnaires with several others. Asked afterwards how many of the other participants noticed their unfashionable attire, the average person guessed about half. In reality, only 23 percent noticed. The good news: Others notice our clothes, our blunders, our anxiety, even our bad hair, less than we suppose.

Not only may our blunders and imperfections do us less harm than we suppose, in some situations they may help. In experiments, well-regarded people who commit a pratfall—who stumble, or spill coffee, or make a mistake—may become better liked. Our blunder can evoke empathy, humanize us, and make us seem more relatable.

Perhaps, then, we can fret less about how others regard us. Assuming we are well-intentioned, the odds are that people like us, even more than we suppose. And, though painfully obvious to us, many of our flaws and failings are less obvious to others, or soon forgotten.

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com or his new essay collection, How Do We Know Ourselves: Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)

 

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).