We tend to systematically underestimate how much people appreciate being reached out to, according to new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This is particularly true in situations where people are not expecting to be contacted.
“My coauthors and I felt like a lot of people were losing touch with each other more and more these days. We wondered why that might be. We thought that one reason might be that people underestimate how much others appreciate their reach-outs,” said study author Peggy J. Liu, the Ben L. Fryrear Chair in Marketing at the University of Pittsburgh Katz Graduate School of Business.
Liu and her colleagues conducted a series of studies involving more than 5,900 participants, including three field experiments in which people reached out to their actual acquaintances. The researchers sought to investigate how accurate people are at estimating how much others appreciate an attempt to connect and what factors might play into that level of appreciation.
In their first study, participants were randomly assigned to recalled from their personal history either a time they reached out to someone or a time when someone else reached out to them. Participants were then asked to indicate how much either they or the person they reached out to (depending upon the condition) appreciated, felt grateful, felt thankful or felt pleased by the contact. Participants who recalled a time when they initiated contact perceived lower levels of appreciation compared to participants who recalled a time when someone reached out to them.
In a series of follow-up experiments, participants sent a short note, or a note and a small gift, to someone in their social circle with whom they had not interacted in a while. Similar to the previous experiment, participants who initiated contact were asked to rate the extent to which they thought the recipient would appreciate, feel grateful for, and feel pleased by the contact. After the notes/gifts were sent, researchers also asked the recipients to rate their appreciation.
Those who initiated the contact consistently underestimated the extent to which recipients would appreciate the act. “Additionally, this effect persisted across both brief message and small gift reach-outs, weak tie and strong tie relationships, and across both undergraduate and online adult samples,” the researchers noted.
“Despite wanting to reconnect with people they have lost touch with in their lives (e.g., high school or college classmates, former coworkers, old friends, old neighbors), I think many people are hesitant about doing so,” Liu told PsyPost. “The takeaway from these findings is that people’s hesitations may be misplaced, as others are likely to appreciate being reached out to more than people think.”
Liu and her colleagues also found evidence that the surprise of being reached out to played a key role. Appreciation tended to be greater when the reach-out was more surprising.
“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,” Liu said in a news release. “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.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“We focused on reaching out to those with whom people have had a history of positive interactions,” Liu explained. “Indeed, we often lose touch with other people simply due to life circumstances (e.g., graduation, switching jobs, becoming a parent, the pandemic, etc.). We did not examine reaching out in the context of having fallen out with someone, so it’s possible that findings could differ in that context.”
“A personal tip on what I do to encourage myself to reach out is that I actually 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 added. “I then tell myself that I would appreciate it a lot if an old friend reached out to me and that there is no reason to think they would not similarly appreciate me reaching out to them. I have found that to be an effective way of thinking to overcome my own hesitations regarding reaching out.”
The study, “The Surprise of Reaching Out: Appreciated More Than We Think“, was authored by Peggy J. Liu, SoYon Rim, Lauren Min, and Kate E. Min.