Keep in touch! Old friends appreciate when people reach out more than we think

WASHINGTON — Do phone calls from long-lost friends really excite you? You’re not alone. A new study finds people often underestimate how much their old friends will appreciate receiving a call from them out of the blue.

Researchers found that participants who called, texted, or emailed someone in their social circle just to say hello consistently underrated how much their friend would value hearing from them. Meanwhile, the friend receiving the message placed a much higher value on the surprise social interaction.

“People are fundamentally social beings and enjoy connecting with others,” explains lead author Peggy Liu, PhD, from the University of Pittsburgh, in a media release. “There is much research showing that maintaining social connections is good for our mental and physical health. However, despite the importance and enjoyment of social connection, our research suggests that people significantly underestimate how much others will appreciate being reached out to.”

Friends love when you call ‘just because’

The study featured several experiments involving over 5,900 people, looking at what factors play into the amount of appreciation someone feels when others contact them.

In one experiment, study authors asked half of the participants to remember the last time they contacted someone their social circle “just because” or “just to catch up” after not speaking with them for a really long time. The rest of the group took the opposite approach, remembering when a long-lost friend reached out to them.

The two groups then had to rate on a seven-point scale (1 meaning “not at all” and 7 meaning “to a great extent”) how much the person receiving this communication appreciated, or felt grateful, thankful, or pleased about the message. For people making the call, this meant guessing how much their friend enjoyed hearing from them. For the people receiving the call, they simply had to rate how much they appreciated hearing from a long-last pal.

Results show the people reaching out significantly underrated their friend’s appreciation when comparing the two groups.

People enjoy surprises

In a separate experiment, the participants sent a short note or a small gift to someone they hadn’t seen in a while. Just like in the previous experiment, the group had to rate on a seven-point scale how much they thought their friend would appreciate this surprise.

After the participants sent their notes and gifts, the team asked the recipients to also rate how much they appreciated receiving a gift from an old friend. Again, the person receiving the surprise placed a much higher value on the contact than the person sending out the gift.

“We found that people receiving the communication placed greater focus than those initiating the communication on the surprise element, and this heightened focus on surprise was associated with higher appreciation,” Liu adds. “We also found that people underestimated others’ appreciation to a greater extent when the communication was more surprising, as opposed to part of a regular communication pattern, or the social ties between the two participants were weak.”

Don’t let the pandemic stand in your way

Researchers say that many people have likely lost touch with members of their social circle in recent years. Aside from people naturally drifting away from those they went to high school or college with, the pandemic has added another layer of social isolation for some.

Moreover, the team says people often worry about how someone with perceive the gesture of reaching out after a long period of silence. However, the new study finds saying hello “just because” is a much more welcome surprise than many may think.

“I sometimes pause before reaching out to people from my pre-pandemic social circle for a variety of reasons. When that happens, I think about these research findings and remind myself that other people may also want to reach out to me and hesitate for the same reasons,” Liu concludes. “I then tell myself that I would appreciate it so much if they reached out to me and that there is no reason to think they would not similarly appreciate my reaching out to them.”

The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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