Mind-reading fuels social anxiety

People like compliments, but we are often reluctant to give them.

“She will think I’m stupid”. So much social anxiety is fuelled by mind-reading, but the reality is that we don’t know what others are thinking. In fact, study after study shows our predictions as to what other people think about us are often inaccurate and harsh.


Take the subject of compliments. Have you ever thought about complimenting someone only to then have a change of heart, on the basis that it might make the other person feel awkward?


In a recent study, researchers recruited 210 people and then paired them off in a series of experiments. The pairs consisted of friends, family, and couples. One person (the expresser) was asked to write down three compliments they could give to the other person (the receiver), focusing on positive things they had noticed but had not actually complimented them on yet.


When finished, they predicted how the other person would report feeling after reading their compliments. They were also asked as to whether the other person would perceive their compliments as warm and sincere; how articulate would the other person perceive the compliments; and whether the words used in the compliment were deemed to be ‘just right’.


The researchers noted that people often refrain from giving compliments because of a feeling of awkwardness, complaining that they could feel ‘weird’ or ‘uncomfortable’.


However, how awkward you feel has no bearing on how well the compliment is received. ‘Expressers consistently underestimated how positive the recipients would feel’, the study noted, ‘but overestimated how awkward recipients would feel’.


In other words, don’t fret about how awkward it might feel, or whether you choose the “right” words. As the study noted, ‘people’s relationships might be a little better off if they were less reluctant to pass along kind thoughts when they had them’.


The same is true when it comes to the subject of expressing gratitude – that is, experiments have found that people are often reluctant to express gratitude to others because we underestimate how positive it will make the other person feel and overestimate how awkward it might feel.



Friends embrace.
We can undervalue the importance of connecting with others.

Similarly, other studies have found we can undervalue the positives of connecting with others. In a recent column, I referred to research showing that routinely making small talk with strangers can make us happier. 


However, people often shy away from talking with strangers, focusing instead on the potential negatives. In one experiment, participants estimated only about 40 per cent of train passengers would be willing to talk to them. In reality, every person who tried to talk to a stranger found the person sitting next to them was happy to chat.


I have also talked in the past about what researchers called the liking gap. The liking gap refers to the gap between how much we think another person likes us and how much they actually like us. In one study, ‘The Liking Gap in Conversations: Do People Like Us More Than We Think?’, people were asked to have a short conversation with another participant. After, they rated how much they liked the other person and how much they thought the other person liked them. The study found people consistently underestimated the other person’s opinion of them. 


Various factors are at play here, but one reason is that people tend to be self-critical when thinking about their interactions with others. “I should have said this, I shouldn’t have said that” – we often ruminate on what we think we did wrong, but this only skews our judgement. The reality is that people like us more than we think they do.


It’s not helpful to engage in mind-reading and rumination. Doing so only makes you more self-conscious, self-focused and self-critical. This hyper-focus on your own performance means it’s easy to miss what is actually happening in the room, resulting in inaccurate perceptions of what others are thinking about us.


Giving compliments, expressing gratitude, making conversation with strangers – these things can seem awkward and uncomfortable, but you don’t have to be a slave to feelings of discomfort. Instead, aim to give yourself a gentle push and remind yourself that most people aren’t harsh and judgmental – the opposite is true.