Unexpectedly reaching out to a friend is more appreciated than people assume, new study shows

A new study found that surprising outreach in social circles is highly valued, but often underestimated by individuals.

People consistently underestimate how much others appreciate it when someone in their social circle unexpectedly reaches out to them, a new study has found.

In fact, the more surprising the “reaching out” is, the more people tend to appreciate it.

The study (PDF) was published on July 11 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Reaching out “just because”

There is much research showing that maintaining social connections is good for both mental and physical health.

But despite the importance and enjoyment of social connection, this new study suggests that people significantly underestimate how much other people appreciate being reached out to.

To reach this conclusion, the study’s authors conducted a series of experiments involving more than 5,900 participants.

They wanted to explore how accurate people are at estimating how much others might appreciate an attempt to connect.

Hearing from an old friend makes people happy and grateful

In one experiment, half of the participants were asked to recall the last time they reached out to someone in their social circle – “just because” or “just to catch up” – after a prolonged period of not interacting with them.

Participants were then asked to indicate on a 7-point scale (1=not at all, 7=to a great extent) how much they imagined that the person they contacted felt grateful, thankful, pleased, or generally appreciated the contact.

The other half of the participants were asked to recall a similar situation where someone reached out to them.

They also indicated on that same 7-point scale how much either they appreciated, felt grateful, felt thankful, or felt pleased by the contact

The participants who were asked to recall reaching out thought that their gesture was significantly less appreciated than those participants who recalled receiving a communication.

The researchers refer to this disparity as “a robust underestimation of how much other people appreciate being reached out to.”

These theoretical results hold up in the real world

In other experiments, participants sent a short note (or a note and a small gift) to someone in their social circle, specifically someone with whom they had not interacted in a while.

Similar to the previous experiment, participants who initiated contact were asked to rate on a 7-point scale the extent to which they thought the recipient would appreciate, feel grateful for, or feel pleased by the contact.

After the notes/gifts were sent, researchers also asked the recipients to rate their appreciation.

Once again, the results showed that those who initiated the communication significantly underestimated the extent to which recipients would appreciate the act of reaching out.

The power of surprise

The researchers also found one interesting variable that affected how much a person appreciated a reach out, namely how surprising the contact was.

They found that people receiving the communication placed greater emphasis on the surprise element, and this heightened focus on surprise was in turn associated with higher appreciation.

Reaching out can be intimidating

“People are fundamentally social beings, and enjoy connecting with others,” said lead author Peggy Liu of the University of Pittsburgh.

As she points out, many people lose touch with others over time, be they friends from high school or college, or co-workers they used to see more frequently before work went remote.

Initiating social contact after a prolonged period of disconnect, she said, can feel intimidating because people worry about how such a gesture might be received.

But the present study suggests that such hesitations may be unnecessary, as other people are in fact much more likely to appreciate being reached out to than people assume.

Liu said that she sometimes pauses before reaching out to people in her 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,” she said.

Reestablishing contact

As the researchers point out, staying socially connected can be challenging.

“Modern life is often not set up to facilitate serendipitous social connection with one’s friends and acquaintances,” they write, which means that “staying connected often requires at least one person to take the initiative to reach out.”

This becomes all the more complicated the longer that period of non-contact has been.

“For those treading back into the social milieu with caution and trepidation,” the researchers write, “feeling woefully out of practice and unsure, our work provides robust evidence and an encouraging green light to go ahead and surprise someone by reaching out.”

Doing so, they conclude, is “likely to be appreciated more than one thinks.”

Study: “The Surprise of Reaching Out: Appreciated More Than We Think”
Authors: Peggy J. Liu, SoYon Rim, Lauren Min, and Kate E. Min
Published in: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
Publication date: July 11, 2022
Image: via Canva

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