Making sense of other people—a process called social perception—is no easy task. We can’t read other people’s minds, so we have to make inferences about their thoughts, feelings, and intentions. Decades of research in social psychology demonstrates that our inferences are often wrong.
Here are a few common errors in social perception:
1. People like us more than we think they do.
After having a conversation with someone, we tend to worry about how we came across (e.g., “Did I share too much?” “Did that comment sound pretentious?”). However, research shows that people aren’t as critical as we are ourselves. In fact, people tend to like us and enjoy our company more than we think they do. Researchers call this discrepancy in perspectives the liking gap.
It’s unreasonable to expect that everyone like will us, of course. But research on the liking gap suggests that we can put aside some of our concern about how we are being perceived by others—and just enjoy the conversation.
2. Talking to strangers is more enjoyable than we think.
People are often reluctant to talk to strangers, but they feel happier and more connected after doing so. In one study, researchers encouraged train and bus commuters to talk to a fellow passenger or keep to themselves. Commuters predicted that they would be happier keeping to themselves, but those who talked to a stranger enjoyed the ride more than those who sat in solitude. This was true for both extraverts and introverts.
If you tend to avoid talking to strangers because you think it will be awkward or unpleasant, try changing your perception.
3. People don’t always notice what we wish to hide.
When people are self-conscious about an aspect of their behavior or appearance (such as a large pimple), they often overestimate the extent to which others notice it. Researchers call this phenomenon the spotlight effect.
In one clever study, researchers asked college students to wear an embarrassing t-shirt (one with a photo of singer Barry Manilow). As predicted, the students overestimated the number of other students who actually noticed the t-shirt.
Research on the spotlight effect suggests that others may be less focused on our imperfections than we are. Isn’t that a relief?
4. Others judge us less harshly than we think.
When we experience a failure or embarrassing mishap—like forgetting a new acquaintance’s name or tripping on the sidewalk—we often think that others will judge us harshly. However, research shows that our fears are overblown; people are less critical than we think.
One of the reasons why we overestimate the negativity of others’ judgments is that we tend to focus on our mistakes more than others do. For example, if you trip over a few words in a 10-minute speech, your thoughts afterward are likely to be focused on the blunder. However, the audience’s impression of you is likely based on the bigger picture—the ideas you shared, the confidence you projected, etc. So, the next time you commit a social gaffe, give yourself the same grace others would.
5. People can’t see right through us.
People tend to believe that their thoughts and feelings are more apparent to others than is actually the case—a belief researchers call the illusion of transparency.
In one study, participants played a variation of the “two truths and a lie” game. Thinking that others could see right through them, the participants overestimated the extent to which others could detect their lies. Another group of participants was asked to conceal their feelings after drinking either Kool-Aid or a nasty, vinegar-based drink. Though participants believed they were not very good at hiding their reactions, observers could not tell which drink they had consumed.
Keep in mind the illusion of transparency when you feel anxious giving a speech or talking to a new acquaintance. You might assume that your anxiety is obvious to others, but you probably hide it better than you think.
6. People appreciate a compliment more than we know.
Genuine compliments make us feel good, so why don’t we pay compliments more often? Researchers have found that people underestimate how good a compliment makes others feel, and they overestimate how annoyed, bothered, and uncomfortable the other person will feel as a result of receiving their compliment.
This social misperception likely keeps us from giving more compliments, causing us to miss out on small but important opportunities for social connection.
7. We’re not the only one home alone on Saturday night.
While people tend to believe they are better than average in most domains (intelligence, creativity, leadership ability, etc.), they are less confident about their social lives. Indeed, research shows that most people think that others attend more parties, have more friends, and enjoy a larger social circle than they do themselves. Social media likely perpetuates this pessimistic belief.
So, stop feeling bad about being home alone on Saturday night. You’re probably missing out on less than you think.