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The Hidden Value of Reaching Out to Others

Research finds we greatly underrate the power of a friendly gesture.

Key points

  • People don't always take the step of connecting with someone they haven't talked with in a while, even if they want to do so.
  • A series of studies tested a possible explanation for why people might not touch base with others.
  • The results revealed that people tend to miscalculate the beneficial impact of contacting someone for no reason other than to touch base.
  • One reason this happens is because we aren't paying attention to how enjoyably surprising such a gesture feels for the person on the other end.
Cast of Thousands/Shutterstock
Source: Cast of Thousands/Shutterstock

Have you ever thought of reconnecting with someone whom you haven’t spoken to in a while, but then didn’t see that idea through? Odds are you’ve had that experience because, well, it’s not always so easy to make contact—and most of us are all-too-aware that a well-intended, warm message could be met with a standoffish response (or no response at all).

Fortunately, a team of researchers sought to examine what really happens when people contact each other out of the blue, both from the perspective of the person who’s taking the first step in connecting and from the vantage point of the one who’s on the receiving side. In a paper published this month, the researchers outline the various experiments they conducted to investigate a few different approaches—e.g., what happens when someone sends a message to say "hi" with or without a little present, such as a small container of sweets.

Even more specifically, they endeavored to build on prior work illustrating that we humans aren’t exactly the most precise analysts when it comes to considering how other folks are apt to think or feel in situations. Drawing from earlier research, they studied whether individuals have a tendency to underrate how much somebody would enjoy receiving a small greeting (with or without a little present) and, if so, why that occurs.

What the Study Found

First, the results confirmed that people do, indeed, tend to minimize how much someone would feel thankful to be on the receiving end of this kind of considerate gesture. As the researchers note, it's not that people who make an effort at connecting don’t believe that the other person wouldn’t care or feel grateful at all; rather, it’s that they don’t grasp the full extent to which this basic form of communication would feel moving for the person on the other end.

Second, their findings also threw light on a potential reason underlying this miscalculation: The person who sends the greeting and the one who receives it aren’t paying the same attention to how happily surprising such a gesture would feel. As the investigators point out, surprise is relevant here, in part due to other research showing that surprise can heighten the emotional tone of a situation.

But why would there be a discrepancy between what the giver and the receiver are noticing? As the research team also notes, people who receive a good-natured message like this wouldn’t expect to receive it and would feel surprised as a result, which would amplify their enjoyment; moreover, they also would be attending to the thoughtfulness behind this act of connection. On the other hand, the individuals who are sending the message aren’t feeling the surprise of the other person (which makes sense—they’re the ones making contact) and they may be more concerned with how they appear.

So what can we take from this? As the researchers wisely observe, we have good reason to touch base with people we care about but haven’t been able to remain engaged with, which they note is especially pertinent in light of the pandemic. They aptly end their article with an invitation to contact someone, noting it’s likely to mean more to that person than we’d imagine. I couldn’t have said it better.

Facebook image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

LinkedIn image: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock


Liu, P. J., Rim, S., Min, L., & Min, K. E. (2022, July 11). The surprise of reaching out: Appreciated more than we think.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

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