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Reaching out to your friends means more than you think

A new study led by the University of Pittsburgh has found that people consistently underestimate how much others in their social circles might appreciate an unexpected phone call, email, or text message just to say hello or check up on them. Moreover, the experts discovered that the more surprising the attempt of social connection, the greater it will be appreciated.

“People are fundamentally social beings and enjoy connecting with others,” said study lead author Peggy Liu, an associate professor of Marketing and Business Administration at the University of Pittsburgh. “There is much research showing that maintaining social connections is good for our mental and physical health. However, despite the importance and enjoyment of social connection, our research suggests that people significantly underestimate how much others will appreciate being reached out to.” 

To explore how accurate people are at estimating how much others might appreciate an attempt to connect, Professor Liu and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments involving 5,900 participants. 

In one experiment, half of the people were asked to recall the last time they reached out to someone “just to catch up” after a prolonged period of not interacting with them, while the rest were asked to recall a similar situation when someone reached out to them. Then the participants had to indicate on a seven-point scale how much either they or the person they reached out to appreciated the gesture and felt grateful or pleased. 

The experimenters were surprised to find that people who recalled reaching out thought their gesture was significantly less appreciated than those who recalled receiving a communication.

“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 Professor 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.”

Many people have lost touch with others in their lives, particularly in the context of the Covid pandemic. These findings suggest that hesitations to reconnect may be unnecessary since others are likely to appreciate being reached out to more than people may think. 

“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. 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,” Professor Liu concluded.

The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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