The liking gap: Why you're doing better than you think socially

We’ve all at one point or another had that sinking feeling when leaving a conversation, replaying a blunder or faux pas we made.


We may experience the uneasy feeling that we weren’t as engaging as we wanted to be. Or end up putting ourselves through the almost CSI-style analysis of each word we said (and the inflexion we used ) to incriminate us as 'unlikeable'. 

The liking gap

Those thoughts can eat up a huge amount of our brain’s energy, sometimes keeping us awake at night and ruminating during the day. As a psychological theory known as 'the liking gap' shows, this energy is almost completely wasted. 

The liking gap is the name given to the phenomenon that we tend to misjudge how much people like and approve of us in conversation. Research has shown that this gap is at its widest with strangers and will gradually decrease as we get to know someone better.

Multiple studies have been carried out on the liking gap. In one notable project, a team of researchers interviewed university students in their first week of term, asking them to rate much they liked their roommates, and how much they thought their roommates liked them. The results found that the participants consistently underestimated how much they were liked by their roommates from September right through the school year up until May when the gap closed.
But why are we so terrible at judging how much people like us? One theory is 'the spotlight effect', where we focus so much on ourselves that we mistakenly assume that people are paying as much attention to us as we are. The other is 'the illusion of transparency', where we assume that our conversation partners are mind readers and have access to our inner world of anxious thoughts and negative assumptions, judging us for it.  It can also be that social etiquette doesn’t allow for a frank and open discussion of “How am I doing?” in conversations. We must instead rely on verbal and nonverbal cues like smiling or eye contact. These are more difficult to decipher when we don't know someone, and, as the liking gap shows, we tend to overlook them anyway.  

We are social beings, and we have a deep yearning to be accepted by the wider group. In the times of our ancestors, rejection could lead to being turned out of the group and left to fend for ourselves in the wild. So powerful is the effect of rejection, that the same areas of our brain light up as when we are in physical pain.  This is simply because our brain is protecting us from that life-threatening situation. It also protects us by replaying conversations to reflect on how we can do better next time. A little bit of self-reflection can actually be helpful.  

However, when we suffer from excess stress and anxiety, these feelings are amplified, and our perceptions become even more distorted. This can result in excessive rumination and being overly critical of ourselves and our character. In extreme cases, it can lead to anxiety around and even avoidance of social interactions altogether.  

How can hypnotherapy help?

In solution-focused hypnotherapy, we examine what is happening in the brain at a subconscious level. We look at where excessive anxiety comes from, and how it is triggered, so we can recognise it and nip it in the bud. We combine this with hypnosis and solution-focused psychotherapy, so you can learn to self-regulate in social settings. Over sessions, you learn to gain perspective by shifting your mindset to what went well in conversations and focusing on the positive interactions in your life, rather than dwelling on the negative - most of which is in our heads anyway.  

It's reassuring to think that the liking gap is experienced by almost everyone. So the next time you are in a social situation and you feel that anxiety bubbling, switch the spotlight off by focusing on the other person and be transparent about your nerves if need be - your conversation partner is likely to be feeling something similar. As the liking gap shows us, people are much more forgiving than we give them credit for, and we value authenticity as we can identify with it.

Finally, if you do feel that post-conversational dread creeping in, recall all the positive interactions in your life, the people you are closest to and feel wonderful around, you might even get in touch with one of them. This will anchor you into a more positive and objective reality where you feel valued and appreciated for the wonderful and unique human being that you are.  

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Hypnotherapy Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Edinburgh EH10 & Burntisland KY3
Written by Elizabeth Dunne, MA, DSFH, HPD
Edinburgh EH10 & Burntisland KY3

Elizabeth Serra is a Solution Focused Hypnotherapist and Psychotherapist specialising in body image and social anxiety. Through the solution focused approach, Elizabeth helps her clients build inner confidence, positive self image and resilience to life's stressors. She is passionate about helping clients recognise and reach their full potential.

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