Overcoming the Liking Gap: Strategies for College Students to Feel More Liked and Connected

Liking Gap

Written by Dr. Paul Kelly, C.Psych.              June 24, 2024

Feeling like your new friends might not actually like you? You’re not alone!

  • The Liking Gap is a common tendency to underestimate how much others enjoy our company.
  • We overthink conversations, focusing on flaws and missed opportunities.
  • Learn to challenge these thoughts and build stronger connections.


Table of Contents


What is the Liking Gap? Sarah’s Story

Sarah met Sunita when they moved into their double room at school residence. Their first conversation was on Sarah’s mind that night when she was trying to sleep. She was worried that Sunita didn’t like her very much. These thoughts were stuck in Sarah’s head:


Two people having a conversationDid I talk too much?

Was I boring?

Did I talk about my ex too much?

Sunita was polite, but I don’t think she likes me very much.

I am from a small town. She was putting up with me.”

Sunita, on the other hand, liked Sarah from that first day.

She texted her sister: “I got lucky. Sarah, my new roommate is great.” 


Why did Sarah get it so wrong? How did she miss how much Sunita liked her?

The reason is The Liking Gap.

The Liking Gap is a tendency to underestimate how much others like us. It happens after a first meeting or conversation.

It is a mistaken belief with two parts: that people like us less than they actually do, and that they enjoy our company less than they really do.

It is very common with college students. It starts when we are about five years old.

Have you ever met a new person and thought you didn’t make a good impression? The Liking Gap was probably clouding your judgement.

There is a good chance that the other person liked you more than you realized.

Learn more about the Liking Gap so you can catch it and overcome it. I will show you how.


causes of the liking gap


What Causes the Liking Gap?

Let’s look at what science can tell us about the Liking Gap.

1. Critical Thoughts

None of us are mind readers. Sarah didn’t know what Sunita was thinking, so she relied on her own thoughts. That’s what people do in these first conversations. Sarah’s thoughts were critical and self-focused. Most of us have an inner criticthat pulls for our attention.

2. Negative Replay

After the conversation, Sarah replayed it in her head. She kept thinking about what she could have said differently. Because of her focus on the negative, Sarah did not remember what had gone well. For example, she and Sunita had laughed together Sarah forgot about those moments.

3. Difference in Expectations

People have higher standards for themselves than for others. This adds to the Liking Gap. Sarah compared the conversation to her idea of a perfect conversation. She did not meet her high expectations.

So, she thought she was an unimpressive failure. Sunita didn’t expect much. Most people don’t when they talk to a stranger. So, for Sunita, the conversation went better than expected. Sarah didn’t see that Sunita was happy to talk to her because she was too focused on what ‘should’ have been better.

4. Self Consciousness

Sarah overestimated how much her awkward feelings showed. In her mind, she was stammering and nervous. Sunita saw someone who was quite likable. She thought that Sarah’s was endearing and sincere.


build new friendships


6 Steps to Overcome the Liking Gap

You can take steps to overcome it and build new friendships. Try some of these proven steps. Which ones would you start with?

  1. Be Aware: Understand that the liking gap exists. Remember that you will tend to judge yourself more harshly than your conversation partner. Watch for signs that they like you and want to keep the conversation going. Do they ask you questions? Do they nod or smile? Trust what you see.
  2. Ask for Feedback: Talk to trusted friends or family members about your concerns. They can offer a more balanced view of your social skills. Then ask the new people in your life for feedback. If you show vulnerability, they will feel safe with you.
  3. Positive Self-Talk: Remind yourself of the good things about the conversation.
  4. Take Action: Don’t let fear hold you back. Be willing to talk to new people.
  5. Practice Talking to New People: Try starting casual conversations at checkout counters or in elevators. Mention the weather. Anything. Strangers will respond positively much more that you first expect.
  6. Put Your Phone Away Sometimes: If you are always staring at your phone, you will miss chances to start a conversation with a new person.


Personal Note and Conclusion

It has been a long time since I was in college residence, but the shadow of the Liking Gap can still sneak up on me too. It can show up for all of us – regardless of age. Now that I know about it, I can watch for it. I know that if I am too much in my head – focusing on my thoughts – I can miss signs that the other person is enjoying the conversation. I am also more willing to take a chance and start a conversation.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you notice it. It is a very common cognitive bias. It is not your fault. The good news is that you can start to overcome it by trying some of the 6 steps in the list above. Now that you know about the Liking Gap, don’t let it be a barrier to making new friends. You deserve to have good friends.

I wish you good luck with this.


Research Studies on the Liking Gap