It has happened to us all: sitting on the sofa, toying with the idea of sending an old friend an unexpected text, but worrying that a message out of the blue may seem weird, intrusive or just plain unwelcome.
However, research suggests such fears are unfounded, with those on the receiving end often far more grateful than the sender may expect.
What’s more, the study suggests the more of a surprise a message or small gift is, the greater the appreciation the recipient feels.
“Many people have lost touch with others in their lives, including many friends. Despite wanting to reconnect, I think many people are hesitant about doing so,” said Dr Peggy Liu, of the University of Pittsburgh, the lead author of the research.
“These findings suggest that their hesitations may be misplaced, as others are likely to appreciate being reached out to more than people think.”
Liu said the team began their research because they felt a lot of people were losing touch with each other more and more. “We wondered why that might be,” she said.
Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Liu and her colleagues report how they investigated the matter by conducting a series of experiments, based on hypothetical and real-life scenarios, involving more than 5,900 participants.
In one experiment, 54 participants wrote a note to a fellow college student they hadn’t been in touch for a while. This note was emailed to the latter by the researchers, who asked both the writer and recipient to indicate how much they felt the message was appreciated.
The results show that on average senders rated recipients’ appreciation at 5.57 on a seven-point scale, while the recipients themselves rated their appreciation at 6.17. The team said this and other experiments revealed that people receiving messages appreciate them significantly more than the sender tends to expect.
Further experiments suggested the degree of this mismatch is linked to how surprising the contact is. When the team conducted thought experiments in which a hypothetical message or gift was expected to be given, they found no difference between the sender’s view of how much it would be appreciated and that reported by those imagining the situation as recipients.
“One reason this underestimation of appreciation occurs is that people considering reaching out do not think about how positively surprised others would feel upon being reached out to,” said Liu.
But Liu said questions remained. “While we show that people typically underestimate how much others appreciate being reached out to, it remains an outstanding question how we can actually prompt people to reach out to others more,” she said.
Stephen Reicher, a professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews, who was not involved in the work, said the results made sense.
“Feeling connected to others has consistently been shown to be good for our physical and mental health. Indeed there is a whole new literature on what is called ‘the social cure’ which shows that such connections can be remarkably effective in everything to protecting against depression and maintaining cognitive abilities in the old to recovery from heart attacks,” he said, adding that simply feeling part of a group was equally effective.
Reicher suggested Covid has underlined the need to help people connect. “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we have a pandemic of loneliness causing massive harm and we need to address it urgently as a matter of public health,” he said. “Finding ways of connecting people must be a priority.”