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Relationships and romance, Social and behavioural

Go ahead and contact that old friend – they’ll probably appreciate it more than you think

Studies show we underestimate how much others appreciate it when we “reach out”.

08 August 2022

By Emily Reynolds

Amidst our busy lives, it’s not always easy to stay in touch with friends. During the pandemic in particular, many people found their social circle shrinking. And even though friendship has clear benefits for wellbeing, mental health, and personal growth, getting in touch with friends sometimes falls down our list of priorities.

A new study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests we should probably be making more of an effort to keep in touch. It finds that reaching out can have a surprisingly big impact, with people appreciating it much more than we expect.

In the first study, participants were asked to recall the last time either they “reached out” to someone in their own social circle or someone in their social circle reached out to them after an extended period of time (the team defined “reaching out” as getting in touch to indicate that you are thinking about someone).

They then rated how much they thought the person (or how much they) appreciated the contact. And the results suggested that we underestimate how much this kind of gesture is appreciated: participants rated their friends' appreciation of being contacted lower than their own appreciation.

In the next studies, participants actually wrote notes and sent gifts to friends before estimating how much these gestures would be appreciated. The friends who received the notes and gifts also took part in the study, indicating how grateful they were for the gift. Again, those who reached out underestimated how much the recipients would appreciate both the written notes and gifts.

Next, the team focused on a particular factor involved in the underestimation of appreciation: surprise. Participants first wrote a note to a friend, checking in and saying hello. They then predicted how much the friend would appreciate them reaching out, and how much they were thinking about how pleasantly surprised the friend would be after receiving the note. The recipient then reported how much they appreciated the note and the extent to which they were thinking about how pleasantly surprised they were.

The results showed that recipients were more focused on their surprise than the senders were. In fact, the senders’ lack of focus on how surprised the recipient would be could actually explain why they underestimated how much their message would be appreciated.

As the team notes, chance encounters with friends can be rare in the modern world: as much of our communication occurs online we may be less likely to run into someone at a coffee shop or in another in-person setting. One person reaching out to another, therefore, is a fairly crucial aspect of staying part of communities of friends that make us happy and well.

Yet if we consistently underestimate how much people want us to reach out, are we going to do it? Whether we’re scared of rejection or simply believe that our friends aren’t that bothered about hearing from us, this seems a fairly large barrier to keeping in touch. This isn’t the only research that suggests we’re often surprised at how pleasant interactions can be with others, either: a study published this year found that we underestimate how enjoyable conversations with strangers can be.

So throw caution to the wind and get in touch with an old friend – it’s likely that you’re underestimating how much they want to hear from you.