The next time you wonder whether to reach out to a friend, family member, classmate or other person who’s been out of touch for a long time, go ahead and do it. According to our just-published research, it’s likely they’ll appreciate it more than you think.
In a series of 13 experiments involving over 5,900 participants, we – along with colleagues SoYon Rim and Kate Min – wanted to investigate whether people accurately predict how much their social contacts appreciate being reached out to.
In one experiment we conducted, college students wrote a note “to check in and say hello” to a classmate they hadn’t interacted with in a while. Then we asked them how much they thought their classmate would appreciate receiving this note.
Next, we delivered these notes to their classmates and asked the recipients how much they appreciated receiving them.
We found that the students who received the notes were much more appreciative of the gesture than the students who wrote them had anticipated.
Other experiments varied the scenario by involving older adults as participants rather than college students, switching the written message to a small gift – such as cookies or coffee – and comparing how much the sender underestimated the appreciation that an emotionally distant contact would feel compared with a close contact.
Overall they yielded the same basic finding: People tended to underestimate how much others appreciated hearing from them.
What drives this underestimation? Our results suggest that it’s related to how little the people reaching out factor in the surprise felt by those being contacted. When we asked recipients what they focused on when indicating how appreciative they felt, they reported paying a lot of attention to their positive feelings of surprise, which were linked to how appreciative they felt.
Comparatively, potential senders did not report focusing much on recipients’ positive feelings of surprise.
It also mattered whether the two parties were already in a close relationship. People’s underestimations were even greater when their contact was a distant acquaintance because these recipients were especially surprised at being contacted.