There is an underlying dynamic that animates the three theories just discussed.
Reciprocity—the act of giving and receiving—propels our interpersonal relationships. It is a heavy influence but, at the same time, it can be so commonplace that we don’t recognize it when we come across it.
One of the more obvious behavioral tendencies we have as humans is what’s known as reciprocity of liking—a phenomenon in which choosing to like somebody first makes it much more probable that they’ll like you back. The immediate application of this is simple: when you meet somebody new, make it known that you like them and you’ll increase the odds of building a positive relationship with them.
Imagine for a moment that you’ve just met somebody completely new, had a brief conversation with them, and then parted ways. At this point, it’s likely that neither of you has any strong feelings or impressions of the other. Now let’s say that the next day, you’re talking with a mutual friend or acquaintance who says, “Oh, that person you met yesterday was really impressed with you.” With that small piece of information, your perception of that person is likely to change in a radical way. You might even be ready to call them a friend.
But if it was always that easy, why doesn’t everybody just make it really obvious that they like people whom they want to form relationships with? Before getting to that question, let’s dive into a few studies on the topic so that we better understand when reciprocity of liking is applicable.study after the other. In the:
Unbeknownst to the volunteers, however, one of the two participants in each conversation was a confederate—as previously mentioned, these are trained actors who are actually working with the researchers. For a random half of the conversations, the confederate would write a statement that said, “I enjoyed working with [my partner]; [he/she] seems like a really profound and interesting person.”
For the remaining half of conversations, they would write, “I did not enjoy working with [my partner] in the experiment; [he/she] seems like a really shallow and uninteresting person.” After the confederates wrote the statements, the researchers allowed participants to read what their partners had written about them.
The results were unquestionably clear, and they’ve been replicated in countless studies since. The participants who read that their partners had liked them reported also liking their partners drastically more often than when they had read that their partners didn’t like them.
What does this mean for us? And back to our earlier question—if this phenomenon is easily observed, why don’t people take better advantage of it? If we asked people this question, we might get different responses. Essentially, however, it boils down to just a few factors, and they have something to do with what you’ll get in return for trying to reach out.
The biggest conclusion we can draw is that being the first to outright say to people that you like them will create a self-reinforcing cycle that will make people think more highly of you or like you more in return. Doing so, however, makes us vulnerable to rejection, which is the primary reason that reciprocity of liking isn’t used as extensively as you might expect. Irrational as it may be, people don’t like risking personal rejection under almost any circumstances, even when the odds of success far outweigh the odds of failure. Even if you say you like someone, they might not say it back. It’s actually quite astonishing the lengths and tribulations that one will go through, simply to avoid the possibility of rejection in any facet of life—and the reciprocity principle is no exception.
Another possible reason for people not taking advantage of reciprocal liking is that it might come across as not genuine, but rather as straight-up flattery and therefore an obvious tactic for whatever underlying intent. In the case of our previous example, if your interaction is not only brief but also awkward, boring, or forgettable, when you hear that the person was impressed by you, it’s possible that you’ll simply be left wondering why. You may even think the other person is weird or faking being nice, two things that wouldn’t lead to reciprocated liking.
If your compliment doesn’t match up in some way with how the other person perceived the interaction, it’s less likely to go over as well as you’d hope. Therefore, the most effective application of reciprocity of liking is quite often a subtle and authentic one. Don’t compliment or express affection to others just for the sake of getting them to like you; find something real about them that you appreciate and focus on that. Authenticity is still key.
If the majority of people bother, annoy, or bore you, then simply acting like you like them probably won’t make a considerable difference. For many, being more likable to a greater number of people may actually entail taking a more positive view of people first.
This effort of reaching out and telling others that you like them entails risk. If you’re willing to be vulnerable and authentic at the same time, you’ll likely find that reciprocity of liking is a viable means of achieving new heights of social success.
There’s really nothing to lose if we just experiment a little. As we will learn below, a positive feedback loop creates a cultivating environment for the people involved. Commonalities gather people together into groups which imply an expanded social network. It might be worth a try after all.