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Community, Social and behavioural

We're surprisingly reluctant to reach out to old friends

New study explores the dynamics of making contact with a long-lost friend, and the factors that keep us distant.

21 May 2024

By Emily Reynolds

Keeping in touch with old friends isn't always easy. We have probably all, at some point, drifted apart from a once-close companion.

But how keen, really, are we to reconnect with old friends? According to a new study by Lara Aknin and Gillian Sandstrom, published in Communications Psychology, not very. This is especially true when once-friends now feel like strangers — this study, however, suggests there may be ways to help us close the gap.

The first two studies set out to establish how interested people were in reconnecting with old friends. Six-hundred participants, based in the UK, US, and Canada, were asked how willing they would be to reach out to an old friend via phone, text, or email on a number of different occasions, as well as what was stopping them from reconnecting.

Ninety percent of these participants admitted to having lost touch with a friend, suggesting it is a fairly ubiquitous experience. Yet most were uninterested in reconnecting, frequently citing concerns that the friend may not want to hear from them, or that it may be awkward to make contact. The team noted that the self-report nature of this first study might not capture real-life beliefs and actions, however, so the next two studies looked at actual behaviour.

All participants in studies three and four (which involved 453 and 604 participants, respectively) shared that they had an old friend they would be happy to reconnect with, had contact information for, and who they thought might want to hear from them. As part of the study, experimenters prompted them to imagine reaching out to said friend with a brief 'hello' message.

Despite prompting, only around a third of participants took the opportunity to make contact, but those that did reach out went on to report significantly more positive emotions than those who did not. Whether or not this was an effect of sending the message, or whether cheerier people were more ready to close the gap, is unclear.

The next few studies therefore looked at exactly why people fail to reach out, and more specifically at how people view their old friends. One, in which 288 participants rated their willingness to engage in eight everyday activities, including texting an old friend or talking to a stranger, indicated that participants were no more willing to reach out to an old friend than they were to talk to someone they'd never met. In another, in which 319 participants reflected upon the closeness and familiarity of lost friends, people were again less likely to reach out to those who felt less familiar.

Finally, the team recruited 194 participants and randomly assigned them to one of two conditions: one in which they practised sending messages to several current friends, or another in which they simply browsed social media. Next, participants in both conditions were encouraged to send a message to an old friend, as an act of kindness that would benefit both parties.

Those who took part in the first condition, who had practiced sending messages first, were significantly more likely to reach out to an old friend than those who had not — 53% compared to 31% in the non-practice condition.

Of course, the circumstances that lead friends to part ways vary immensely. This particular research looked only at old friends that participants actually wanted to get in touch with; it's unclear whether the tested intervention, or indeed any intervention, may be effective when mending ties is required.

In general, these findings underscore just how reluctant we are to reach out to people we were once close with, even though we feel might a little better for doing so. So next time you wonder if that old friend wants to hear from you, maybe take the chance.


Read the paper in full:

Aknin, L. B., & Sandstrom, G. M. (2024). People are surprisingly hesitant to reach out to old friends. Communications Psychology, 2(1).